He is a 6-foot-6, 256-pound athletic wonder who tracks opposing ball carriers like a laser dot and punishes them like a vindictive medicine ball.
If Jadeveon Clowney were allowed to enter April's NFL draft, rather than prepare for his junior season at South Carolina, the dripping-with-talent defensive end would likely go in the top three, and possibly the top one.
Yet Clowney, because of a nine-year-old decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, doesn't have the option to cash in immediately on his potential. And the risk he'll assume by playing another season for the Gamecocks has prompted some, including Charlotte Observer columnist Tom Sorensen, to suggest that Clowney sit out the 2013 season before going pro.
I have a better idea: Clowney, who turns 20 on Valentine's Day, should lawyer up and try to barge his way into the NFL this spring – the same way he blasted into the Michigan backfield during last month's Outback Bowl.
If Clowney chooses to go this route, I'll wish him well: The NFL's existing, court-sanctioned rule requiring a player to be three full seasons removed from his high school graduation before becoming draft-eligible is ridiculous, on many levels.
First, it's utter nonsense. According to this rule, a wunderkind who graduates high school at 14 can apply to play professional football before he's old enough to vote, but someone whose matriculation is delayed because of, say, a severe medical condition might have to wait until he's 22.
Secondly, it's a self-serving and greedy attempt to preserve what is essentially a free farm system for the NFL – and a corrupt and hypocritical college-football machine that pays off coaches and administrators while exploiting the labor of its elite athletes.
Thirdly, and most important, it is age discrimination in its most blatant form. If Freddy Adu can be selected in the MLS SuperDraft at the age of 14, and Steffi Graf can play a professional tennis tournament when she's a few months past her 13th birthday, how is it fair that someone like Clowney has to wait until he can drink legally before plying his trade?
This is the point at which many of you start firing off emails, tweets and faxes (wait, national Signing Day is over?... never mind about that last part) reminding me that the NFL is a different animal. Yes, I am aware that pro football at its highest level is an inherently dangerous pursuit, and I know this argument for challenging draft restrictions may seem to be at cross-purposes with the many columns I have written regarding the increased need for health-and-safety protections. My first answer would be that very young men (and women) are allowed to enter similarly daunting sports like boxing, MMA, hockey and auto racing without age limits.
My second response? Did you see that hit Clowney put on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl?
It's fair to surmise that Clowney's opponents are the ones who'll need protection.
"The guy looks like a beast," one AFC general manager says of Clowney. "Shows rare close and can really bend the edge and then he hits like a truck and shows some real nasty."
Echoed an NFC GM: "Yes, he's rare. He's a mixture of Jevon Kearse and JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul). He'd go number 1 right now, no later than two. He's an absolute freak."
It seems pretty obvious that Clowney is ready for the big leagues. And if it turns out he isn't – well, can't we let the market decide? And make no mistake: physical readiness is the only issue that's even worth debating. Plenty of older players with more college experience, from Ryan Leaf to JaMarcus Russell, have proven they're not mentally or emotionally mature enough to handle life in the NFL, but that didn't preclude them from entering the draft and getting paid.
Oddly enough, I would argue that the young players who'd be most in harm's way upon entering the NFL early – running backs – are the ones getting hurt most by the current system. If you are a young, strong runner like Alabama's T.J. Yeldon or Georgia's Todd Gurley, each of whom had standout seasons as true freshmen in 2012, why should you subject yourself to approximately 500 touches apiece over the next two years for free?
Consider that if either of those backs were to enter this year's draft – another NFC GM told me Yeldon would likely be the first back off the board in that scenario – he'd not only start getting paid for all that pounding, but he'd also enhance the chances of landing an elusive second (or even third) contract because of his relative youth.
I'm sure that in retrospect Clowney's former South Carolina teammate, Marcus Lattimore, wishes he could have turned pro after the 2010 season, in which he starred as a true freshman. A torn ACL in his left knee ended his sophomore campaign, and last October he suffered a gruesome injury to his right knee, tearing multiple ligaments and suffering a dislocation that put his future prospects in jeopardy. Lattimore plans to enter the draft but will go at a much lower spot – and receive far less guaranteed money – than he would have had he been eligible two years ago.
"For a running back, especially, the wear-and-tear is so great that it's tough to justify keeping them (in college for three years)," the second NFC general manager says. "Don't get me wrong: Fans like the current system, and a lot of these kids aren't emotionally ready for pro football – and, as with the NBA, you'd have a lot of guys washing out. But it's a free country. At some point, it seems like somebody's going to challenge it and win."
Not surprisingly, running backs have been at the forefront of previous threats to the existing system. When Chicago Bears owner George Halas signed Illinois star Red Grange to a contract in November of 1925, it helped legitimize the young NFL while enraging college football's powers that be.
The Galloping Ghost's decision to leave following his junior season led to the establishment of a rule requiring players to be four years past their high school graduation before entering the NFL. That was later amended to the current three-years-removed restriction, in 1990. Thirteen years later, another running back – former Ohio State star Maurice Clarett – sued to enter the draft and temporarily succeeded in striking down the rule.
After a phenomenal freshman season in which he led the Buckeyes to a national championship, Clarett was suspended for his entire sophomore year for taking improper benefits. Two years removed from his high school graduation, Clarett convinced a U.S. District Court judge to allow him to enter the 2004 draft, essentially rendering the existing restrictions obsolete. That decision held that eligibility rules are not immune from antitrust scrutiny under the non-statutory labor exemption.
Eight other players who'd previously been ineligible for the '04 draft, including standout USC wide receiver Mike Williams, promptly declared, only to be left out in the cold when the decision was suspended by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.
That same three-judge panel, which included future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, later overturned the decision, and when the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, it essentially gave legal cover for the NFL's age-discrimination policies.
I'm no lawyer, but it seems to me there are some reasonable arguments that could be made if one were to issue another challenge to the 2nd Circuit's decision. The appellate court essentially ruled that labor law trumps antitrust law in cases where the two conflict, and that both the NFL and the NFL Players Association should forgo individual antitrust protection for the sake of advancing the collective bargaining process.
However, the three-years-removed rule was not the product of collective bargaining, and draft-ineligible players (like Clarett then, or Clowney now) aren't yet members of the union. It's possible another appellate panel would ultimately view things differently, or even that the U.S. Supreme Court would take the case this time.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but another high-ranking union source said the organization would welcome a legal challenge by Clowney (and/or other players) to the Clarett Decision.
I have no idea if Clowney would be interested in such a crusade, but I can see why he would be: I ran his situation by six NFL general managers on Tuesday, and the consensus was that he would "fly off the board" if eligible for the 2013 draft, with three of the GMs saying he'd likely go No. 1 overall.
As per the rookie wage scale, last year's No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Luck, received a four-year, $22.1-million contract that was fully guaranteed. That, at a minimum, seems to be what Clowney would risk by playing for the Gamecocks in 2013.
Apply this model to other careers, and imagine being a 20-year-old in that position. In that context, it's easy to see why some people believe Clowney should consider sitting out his junior season. There was even an argument Wednesday on profootballtalk.com that Clowney should intentionally fail his classes to avoid the possibility of a serious injury that could impact his future earning potential. (If that's the path he chooses, I know plenty of folks from my college days who could give him some excellent pointers.)
At the very least, the young man should protect himself: Clowney is seeking an insurance policy of up to $5 million to guard against the possibility of a catastrophic injury that could prematurely end his career in 2013. It's unclear how he'd pay the premiums, however, and there are other potential flaws with such an arrangement, such as the likelihood that a career-altering (but not career-ending) injury likely wouldn't trigger a payout.
My advice to Clowney: Find yourself a good lawyer who'd be willing to take on your case pro bono – and I suspect there are a whole lot of them who'd be interested, for the principle and/or the publicity – and see if you can blow up that nine-year-old appellate court decision the way you do opposing backfields.
If nothing else, I'd love to see Vincent Smith subpoenaed as a character witness.
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