Penn State football coach Joe Paterno is furious at the NFL because of the way all 28 teams harass the players who are seniors, especially from the end of the season to the time the pro draft is held during the last week in April. For those four to five months every year hundreds of college players are timed, weighed, measured and questioned over and over—often at times when the players should be in class. When such a conflict arises, how do you think it is resolved? Cowboys versus Chemistry is not a fair match.
No wonder Paterno is upset. "How many times do they have to weigh somebody or time him?" he says. "We've had a couple of kids [he refuses to name them] who have been badgered by scouts and agents. They've been tested and retested. They missed so much time that they dropped out of school and won't graduate as scheduled."
Unfortunately, Paterno is one of only a handful of major-college coaches who genuinely care whether their players graduate—even when the players themselves are less than enthusiastic about the proposition—while the NFL cares not a whit about the education of its fodder. The NFL, which uses the colleges as a farm system, should be ashamed of itself. Privately, it is, but it hates for the word to get out. However, Dallas Cowboy vice-president Gil Brandt confesses, "Paterno is absolutely right. What we do is very disruptive." Brandt even admits, for example, that the Cowboys put Penn State offensive tackle Chris Conlin through at least one needless workout. "It's overkill," says Brandt.
What particularly irks Paterno is that college players are hardly closeted from professional view. Nearly every school schedules a timing day in the spring to accommodate the pros (and occasionally agents). Paterno has held such a day at Penn State for the past 15 years. Scouts then see the players in preseason practice, see them in games, see them on game films, see them in all-star games and see them at an annual scouting-combine gathering. (This year more than 300 athletes were evaluated at the combine in Indianapolis in January.) In other words, they're not exactly buying a pig in a poke.
And yet, after all of that, the team representatives and agents repeatedly show up on campuses between January and late April to—you guessed it—time, weigh, measure and question. Again. "Enough," screams Paterno, "is enough." Some pro teams will send as many as three coaches to work out one player. With all the talk and nonsense, this umpteenth look-see can take four hours. Multiply that by 28 and you can see Paterno isn't swatting at gnats.
Paterno says he may ask the NCAA for legislation limiting the number of times scouts from pro teams can visit a campus. Paterno is wrong here. The NCAA already has too many rules that it can't or won't enforce. However, it's obviously time for both the colleges and the pros to examine their relationship. Each side can take a significant step.
The College Step: Quit being patsies for the NFL. Don't let the NFL teams dictate when they will come to town to work out your players. You tell them when it's convenient for your players. If there is a lot of interest in particular athletes, all a university need do is notify the NFL that the players will be available for an extra workout on, say, three dates, preferably weekends, and let the teams decide when to come. That's it.
One problem, of course, is that the players are desperate to make the pro connection and will do anything they are asked. But this proposal shouldn't harm their pro chances. Besides, should colleges roll over and play dead? They should not. If universities profess to be building leaders, then they must lead. The educational process does not stop at the end of the football season. Says Brandt, "What's fair to the players is important, and we're not being fair."
The NFL Step: Move the draft back to the end of January, where it was until 1976. Any semiefficient franchise should by then know which players it likes, having had as many as four years to watch them. Another three months to disrupt players' college lives is unnecessary.
Further, why must the NFL invest so much more time evaluating prospects than other pro sports do? The prolonged process suggests that the league isn't as expert as it would like to appear to be in judging talent. It's time for pro teams to take a hard look at their scouting procedures to determine whether they are truly efficient. The great number of first-round busts—the Walt Patulskis—drafted every year indicates that they aren't. Finally, a late draft frequently hurts pro teams because contract disputes drag on into summer, keeping players out of camp.
So come on, colleges, be strong; come on, NFL, do right. It's obviously in the best interests of the players, if anybody cares.