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Letting college juniors into the NFL draft was overdue

To the cellars, everyone! Hide the women and children! Grab the muskets—the juniors are coming!

If you listened to the alarm being sounded by NFL brass and big-time NCAA football coaches and athletic directors, you would think that the world as we know it is destined to end this Sunday when, for the first time ever, college juniors will enter the regular NFL draft en masse. Decadence, immorality, a swift journey to hell in a handbasket—they're on the way, folks. Allowing juniors, youngsters barely out of day care, to seek employment with grown, paid men is so wrong that, well, it's like sending a 14-year-old girl out to play tennis against the best women players in the world. And you've seen what has happened to little Jennifer Capriati. Ooops.

In truth, there is no valid reason now, nor has there ever been, why a college junior—or sophomore or freshman, for that matter—should not be permitted to play in the NFL. As Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones said last year when 1988 Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders, a junior running back for State at the time, decided he was ready for the pros, only one thing allows Sanders to enter the NFL—the Constitution.

Give Jones a high mark in civics. Every American has the right to make a living. In some cases—acting, singing, tennis come to mind—even children pursue careers. For years the NFL and the NCAA had a cozy handshake deal that benefited both parties by making college football players off-limits for the pro draft until the players had completed their collegiate eligibility or, in the case of a few, graduated. This arrangement kept talented players bound to their schools for four seasons, while giving the NFL a nice, orderly procession of groomed, inspected athletes for its annual spring draft.

This scam was perpetuated behind a smoke screen of contentions that the system was in the players' "best interests." This explanation came from the same university leaders who offer players scholarships one year at a time, no cut of the. revenue generated by their efforts, no liability insurance against loss of future earnings because of injury and, for the most part, no financial assistance toward earning a degree once their usefulness on the field has passed. With protectors like that, who needs enemies?

The NFL decided that Sanders was, indeed, ready for pro football and created a special loophole—his team was about to go on NCAA probation—to let him join the league early. Now, faced with a flood of juniors who say that they, too, are ready for paychecks, the league has opened the door to all of them, as long as they renounce their remaining NCAA eligibility.

This is not benevolence. This is practicality. The NFL, which has been described as a monopoly in federal court, is terrified of a legal attack on its draft, which seems to have elements of monopolistic unfairness about it. For years there have been nonseniors who could have begun earning good salaries in the NFL but refrained from challenging the system because of an unquestioning acceptance of it. O.J. Simpson could have starred in the NFL as a junior. Likewise Tony Dorsett, Bo Jackson, Dan Marino and Jerry Rice. Herschel Walker probably could have gone straight from high school to the bigs.

Now that the youngsters, including such surefire first-rounders as Illinois quarterback Jeff George, Alabama linebacker Keith McCants and Houston quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware, are clamoring to be let in (38 juniors have been accepted into the draft), the NFL and the NCAA are practicing damage control. Don't sue, just close the door behind you, is the whisper.

Sure, some juniors simply want the big rookie money, which may disappear soon if the league owners get the Players Association to agree to an entry-level wage scale. But so what? Houston linebacker Lamar Lathon, an almost certain first-round pick, says he wants the money to help get his crack-addicted sister off drugs. That's fairly noble, wouldn't you say?

What's more, all the concern voiced by college coaches and NFL people about athletes being duped by agents and not getting their degrees because of the new system is all smoke. Yes, there are good agents and bad agents, but the players know that they can get their degree anytime, while athletic prowess can be over in an eye-blink. Jackson has returned to campus—his millions safely in the bank—to work toward his degree. At Auburn last quarter, 17 NFL players were studying for degrees, at their own expense.

Ed King, a 6'4", 295-pound sophomore All-America guard at Auburn, says he doesn't see anything wrong with a player's leaving school early for the pros. "If he's mentally and physically ready, let him go," says King. "He can always come back to school."

Hooray for common sense and the Constitution. However, don't come out of the cellar just yet, folks. That sound you hear is the rustling of those crazy sophomores getting ready to charge the NFL.