Response to Bill Simmons: why Jadaveon Clowney is no cause for questioning the NFL’s three-year rule

Sometimes people you care for will say something that makes you want to whack them behind the head with a clipboard. As a trained journalist, I like Grantland founder and editor-in-chief Bill Simmons a lot. He has rejuvenated my interest in basketball with his consistently funny analysis of the NBA and of his darling Boston Celtics, whom he criticizes in a way only affectionate fans can. You can tell hoops is a sport he has followed all of his life. Moreover, he wrote my single favourite piece of sports journalism of 2012, a touching, engaging column entitled “The consequences of caring,” which I strongly recommend you read right here:

However, listening to my man Simmons on his podcast, The B.S. Report (hahaha… I know), he said two things so ignorant my heart sank. The discussion revolved around South Carolina’s alien defensive end Jadaveon Clowney and how impressive it was to watch him de-cleet Michigan running back Vincent Brown, which it was. The hit forced a fumble from Brown, which Clowney subsequently recovered. With one hand. (Side note: The hit was indeed impressive, but look at the play again. Watch, after Clowney crosses the OT’s face into the B gap, his acceleration to get to Brown. THAT is rare. It’s what allowed Clowney to derail Brown like an 18-wheeler running over a cat and it’s what makes Clowney the freakiest defensive end to grace the fields of college football since Julius Peppers some 11 years ago. That and his hands, which must be about as big as my size 15 feet.)

But I digress. Simmons indeed did not think his words through. First, he criticized the NFL’s rule that forces players to wait three years after graduating high school before entering the league. And secondly, he questioned why anyone would watch college sports (which really ticked me off). But I shall deal with these claims in separate posts, lest I hit the 10,000-word mark. I shall now deal with why Simmons is wrong to call the three-year rule into question.

Why the argument that “college is not for everybody” is irrelevant

Could Jadeveon Clowney play in the NFL right now? Probably. But to hear a respected writer say that this fact should bring the NFL’s 3-year rule into question is painful. I don’t want to be condescending (yet we all know this means I will be anyway), but this is a claim that could only be uttered by someone who has never played football at a high level (and Maurice Clarett).

Simmons is a big basketball guy and it shows. He compared Clowney to Lebron James, who didn’t play college ball and went straight to the NBA with the results we’re all too familiar with. The comparison is evocative, but it is so absurd that I’m shocked his colleague Bill Barnwell, who’s supposed to know something about football (to the degree that he interviewed for a job with the Jaguars’ organization), didn’t reign him.

Football and basketball cannot be compared. The former is a collision sport, the latter is… well, not. Before the NBA put its stupid one-year rule into effect, high schoolers made the jump to the big leagues fairly routinely. Some worked out (Lebron, Kobe), some didn’t (Gerald Green), but I’m not sure you could have pinpointed a significantly lesser degree of success on high school grads compared to their NCAA counterparts. Besides, forcing a bling-hungry and cash-craving basketball prodigy to spend one year in college (one semester, in fact)  is like forcing an alcoholic in denial to attend A.A. meetings and telling him he can leave after 15 minutes. It’s likely that kids walking into college with a plan to stay only one year will get next to nothing out of their fraction of a college education. Thus, Simmons is right to say that the NBA college rule is stupid.

However, there’s no comparing it to the NFL’s rule.

First, the NFL rule forces someone to wait three years before entering the league, not one. In three years, you can get a lot done in college, and players who declare for the draft as juniors seldom have demoralizing amounts of coursework to complete to get their degree when they decide to return to college. Contrast that with the NBA, where a freshman who declares for the draft is just getting started academically. What are the chances that a one-and-done-guy-turned-first-round-bust returns to college once he gives up on the NBA career? Not that he’d need to, but suppose he did, what are the chances of Melo Anthony returning to Syracuse after his career is over given that he still has at least three years left to complete?

Moreover, I don’t care if these players get degrees from their school’s faculty of “wiping your own ass;” the intellectual exercise that is attending and completing university courses trains these young men in several dimensions, many they might not appreciate until much later. Yes, some need university more than others and some are better suited for it than others, but there is no denying that the person who undertakes university studies will draw benefits from it which will remain foreign to the person who doesn’t. Running back Maurice Clarett, even though he studied in “Family resources management” (…lol?) at Ohio State before dropping out and challenging the three-year rule in court, would have been a smarter, perhaps even a better citizen, had he completed his university education. It’s not a foolproof solution by any means; university didn’t stop Lawrence Phillips from racking up a list of domestic violence incidents as long as your arm, and it didn’t stop Rae Carruth from murdering his girlfriend. But we must remember that cases of inappropriate conduct are the exception in the NFL and that most players are indeed model citizens who figure to have grown intellectually during their academic training. Besides, not to get political here, but it seems to me that the United States is not a country that can afford to gamble with its collective intellect any more than it currently does. Therefore, the phony argument that “college is not for everybody” means nothing to me. My answer is always, “how about we get these guys in a classroom and find out?” In other words, I have zero problems with the rule on that front.

If this doesn’t convince you, look at it from another perspective: what if Andrew Luck had been allowed to enter the NFL straight out of high school? We’ll get to physical readiness soon, but beyond that, do we really want to encourage a guy like him not to go to Stanford, not to max out his academic potential and give himself a backup plan in case the NFL career doesn’t work out? Yes, it’s unlikely, but hey, Rick Mirer had a great rookie year too. And how does this not open a total Pandora’s Box of inequality? Luck, or even Jimmy Clausen (who was, if you warp back to 2007, “the best high school quarterback prospect ever”), might not have felt any pressure to get paid early as they both came from deep pockets. But does the 17-year-old kid from a poor family in a dump town in Alabama have that same luxury when his mom is working three jobs? And why is this paragraph riddled with rhetorical questions? Seriously, though, describe the average NCAA football recruit. No, wait! I got this: somewhat self-deluded about his maturity and readiness, poor and black, mind you he could be white and it wouldn’t change a thing. It’s still a recipe for disaster to give these kids, who often have yet to acquire much of a feel for the long term, instant access to money and fame as an alternative to a college education. Critics might retort, “but how’s that different from a HS kid declaring for the NBA draft?” Well, it’s not, except for the fact that…

Physical maturity is a serious, serious concern

Simmons, to my dismay, tried to ridicule this concern that many, who have far greater insight and experience in the game of football than he does, continue to voice. When Maurice Clarett temporarily got the three-year rule invalidated before it was reinstated on appeal three or four days before the 2004 draft,  nearly every pro player surveyed on the subject thought Clarett slightly mad. It turns they were right. After a one-year hiatus, he applied for the draft in 2005 during which he was picked in the third round by Mike Shanahan’s Broncos, but got cut before the end of training camp. Just to show how out of his depth Clarett was, I’ve watched the NFL for about 18 years, and I haven’t seen another third rounder get released so quickly. And he was picked by Mike Shanahan, whose offence could turn a one-legged blind donkey into a 1,000-yard rusher!

It’s all well and good to say that Clowney could play in the NFL right now, but he has just finished his second with South Carolina. It’s not as if he’s fresh out of high school. Could he have played right out of high school? I have strong doubts. Predictably, the kid is nonsensically dominant on his high school film, but the tape also told the knowledgeable observer (and even the less knowledgeable one) that Clowney needed to work on getting bigger and stronger as well as improve greatly from a technical standpoint. He’s been doing that for two years. This hardly strikes me as the type of detail one should overlook.

Besides, suppose we were to grant that he was ready out of high school, it still wouldn’t alter what common sense dictates. An athlete with Clowney’s gifts comes around every 10-12 years. The last one I can think of is Julius Peppers. These cyborgs constitute less than 1 per cent of college players. The quasi-totality of high school players, ridiculously gifted though they may be, cannot hope to withstand the punishment NFL competition dishes out weekly on the league’s players. This rule doesn’t just protect the NCAA, that mediocre organization, and its sleazy athletic directors’ ability to make money off marketable young talent they practically get to exploit for free, though it does that. It doesn’t just protect the NFL from having teenagers wearing its uniforms, though it does that too. It also protects potentially desperate kids from themselves (and, sometimes, from their families). I’m positively not being patronizing. Just for fun, picture an 18-year-old wide receiver running a crossing pattern with Ray Lewis patrolling the area (knocks his lights out, then tells the kid, “God says you’re not ready for this”). Or better yet, try to imagine an 18-year-old O-lineman trying to block some elephant-sized mutant like Haloti Ngata or a rhinoceros with homicidal tendencies like Ndamokung Suh. There was a show that had people attempt sure-to-be painful feats like this. It was called Jackass.

And we haven’t even gotten to the part where some raw slot receiver from Long Beach, California tries (and fails) to break free from Darrelle Revis man coverage, or when some 220-pound Ohio linebacker with great upside realizes it may have been a mistake to skip Ohio State the first time he gets run over by Trent Richardson during his first preseason game, or when Calvin Johnson has some Floridian track star looks like a dog chasing his tail. in coverage. And this would make the NFL more compelling to watch… how exactly?

To get back briefly to Ray Lewis, it just occurred to me the abolition of the three-year rule would mean that should Lewis have decided to return next year for another season, he technically could have played against his son. Think about it.

The basketball comparison doesn’t work, among other reasons, because of the nature of the sport. The physical demands of football make it impossible to look at the two side-by-side. The closest thing you could find in North American sport to what football demands physically from players is hockey, though even that is a completely imperfect comparison. People might point out to hockey and say, “it’s a physical sport, and players get drafted at 16 or 17.” Yeah, but a) they don’t have to learn a playbook so thick it could be used as a weapon, and b) what happens to about 90 per cent of NHL rookies? They spend a few years in the minor league system, which football doesn’t have. Again, the comparison is problematic.

So, in short, we have a proposal that:

  1. bases itself on the impossible comparison between football and basketball to…
  2. tell us we should be fine with skipping an opportunity to educate a population of young men who might otherwise never get a chance to receive such an education so they can instead…
  3. get mauled on a daily basis by grown men who’ve been playing football forever, which would in turn…
  4. hurt college football because it would lose talented players, as well as…
  5. hurt the NFL because to have teens in there who flat-out don’t belong would diminish the calibre of the league.

So, in short, Bill, I love you, and your proposal is a great one except for the part where it’s bad for everyone involved. It would thus be much appreciated if you could warn us when another idea like this comes to your mind so we can be sure to hide. And then just let us know when it’s safe to come out.


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