Marcus Lattimore Out For Season: Is NFL's Age Restriction a Moral Issue?

Published on: October 17, 2011 | Written by: Clay Travis

South Carolina's star running back Marcus Lattimore saw his season come to an end on Saturday. While blocking downfield at Mississippi State Lattimore's knee was rolled into by a lineman. Lattimore, a sophomore, would have been a first round NFL draft pick if he'd been allowed to declare for the draft after his first season at South Carolina. Instead NFL rules force him to return to South Carolina and play for two more seasons before he's eligible to leave. This year South Carolina was riding Lattimore like a rented mule -- he was averaging nearly 25 carries a game entering the State game. With his knee injury Lattimore will not only miss the rest of this season, but will probably spend much of next season returning to the same form that he'd already reached.

There's something incredibly immoral about requiring someone to risk their health and future earnings ability for free.

Many college sports fans are fond of treating NCAA violations as moral failings. Treating NCAA violations as moral issues is complete crap -- you can read my column on that here -- but the largest moral failing in college sports gets hardly any attention -- why should college football players have to put their bodies at risk when they already have the talent to become millionaires? Why aren't more fans, media, and administrators offended by the greatest moral failing of all -- indentured servitude that can lead to career-ending injuries? 

As SEC football continues to increase in speed and violence -- yet again this season there can be no doubt that the SEC is the best football in the nation outside the NFL -- injury risks are increasing. Indeed, four the top ten best offensive players in the SEC East -- Tennessee's Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter, Florida's John Brantley, and South Carolina's Lattimore -- are all out with significant injuries. In today's SEC collisions are more intense, size meets speed with increasingly severe results, yet the best players are forced to put their bodies on the line each game. What sense does that make? Why should a 19 year old Marcus Lattimore not have the same ability to cash in on his athletic talents as a 19 year old baseball, hockey, basketball, soccer or tennis player would? Especially when you consider two things: a. football is significantly more likely to end in injury than these other sports and b. football careers are, on average, much shorter than these other sports. 

That's especially true with running backs. By the time they reach 30 years old most running backs have already passed their peak. Some running backs are done even earlier. Basically, every running back has a certain amount of carries before he hits the wall of diminishing returns. Having established himself as a bona fide NFL first rounder in his freshman season -- I watched Lattimore carry the ball 40 times into the teeth of the Florida Gator defense last season -- every single carry that Lattimore undertakes in his sophomore and junior seasons diminishes his future earnings potential. He is always just one play away from becoming the next Tyrone Prothro -- a once electric player who now works as a bank teller in his college town. While other athletes of his generation are so wealthy they make it rain for fun, Prothro passes out cash to college kids for a living. Hand to hand, not hand to air. 

When you break it down to its simplest essence, Marcus Lattimore and other college football players like him are entertainers. We pay them to entertain us just like we pay actors or musicians. Yet, football players are the only entertainers in America who must wait three years to cash in on their entertainment value. We don't require Taylor Swift to sing in the Vanderbilt chorus, permitting Vandy to sell her albums for three years and keep all the profits. If one of your friends supports the NFL's age restriction, ask him why Taylor Swift shouldn't have to go to college first. Lindsay Lohan didn't have to go to USC and star in a drama school adaptation of Oklahoma. Tiger Woods didn't have to complete three years of golf at Stanford before he turned pro and won the Masters at a time he would have still been in college.

College football players are the only entertainers in America who can't make a living off their talents at the age of 18. The NCAA comes in for a lot of criticism, much of it deserving, but the NCAA has nothing to do with this restriction, it's entirely of the NFL's own making. The NFL's age restriction is a fundamental restraint of trade that is completely un-American. The entire foundation of our country's capitalistic system is predicated on the notion of letting the market assess value once an individual reaches the age of majority. 

Except for college football. 

Yet no one even cares about this arbitrary distinction. A three-year distinction that doesn't exist for any other sport or any other entertainer.

Cecil Newton and I agree about one thing for sure. College football treats its players like rented mules walking across a minefield. Slapping them on the behind and sending them into danger time after time. For what? A one year renewable scholarship that most don't want anyway?

No thanks. 

Raise your hand if you'd risk your future earnings potential every day for three years for nothing?

If you're raising your hand you're a damn fool. And a liar.  

Some of you college football fans are already fulminating at the mouth. You'll read the headline of this article and rush straight to the message board below, or Twitter, or Facebook and rip the premise. Arguing that this will make college football more like college basketball, that introducing the concept of one-and-dones to college football will ruin the sport. You're wrong. That's why I'm going to systematically eviscerate your counter-arguments now.

1. This will hurt college football. 

My first response: So what?

Do we keep from doing what's right because it benefits someone else who doesn't deserve that benefit in the first place? The Vanderbilt chorus program is hurt because Taylor Swift isn't there, but does that mean we should mandate that she attend Vanderbilt and make money for the university? Why should the benefits of a grown man's talents inure to the benefit of someone other than him?

Second response, college football wouldn't be hurt much at all. Relatively few players would actually be able to leave and go pro early. Only the most elite players would leave early. What's more, you're not forcing them to leave. If a player really believes it's in his best interest to stay, he's welcome to make that decision.

The key is, you're giving a player the choice, something that he doesn't have now.

2. College football players aren't ready for the NFL after just one year, they'll get killed. 

But some players are ready. You can't make a blanket statement like that. Especially with the advanced training that many high school kids are undertaking these days. Several of the private high schools in Middle Tennessee have much nicer training facilities than the Tennessee Titans. (Seriously, it's not even close).  

Those that are ready should have the right to go pro like they would in every other American sport. If they get hurt, so be it, they'll be getting hurt playing for money. Which is better than getting hurt playing for free.

Meanwhile, college football is never going to be like college basketball because we don't know which players are going to become freshman studs. We might have a general idea, but only half of Rivals five-star players get drafted. That means there are lots of recruiting busts. Often that's because, unlike in basketball, the best players haven't played against each other in camps and on the AAU circuit. So there couldn't be a John Calipari of college football even if there was a coach who had that desire.

(My take on college basketball is simple: you should be able to go pro straight from high school. The NBA's one-and-done rule makes no sense. My position on this is simple: if you're 18 you should be able to make a living doing anything, sports or otherwise, as an entertainer. Otherwise, what's the point of an age of majority?).

But unlike in college basketball we simply don't know who the guys who could leave early will be until they get to college.

3. What about the education?

That's a sham argument rooted in racial paternalism. Higher education is a great goal, but why should it be connected to pro sports? 

Do you know how many Major League Baseball players or managers had college degrees in 2009?

26.

26!

Yet I defy you to find a single article decrying the lack of college degrees among major league baseball players. You know, the same guys who can go pro straight out of high school and spend a decade or more hacking around in the minor leagues for hardly any money.

One of the reasons why college football players have so little power is because they come, to a large extent, from poor, minority backgrounds. As a result their political power is strangled. Or maybe it's just a coincidence that every sport with majority white athletes lets those kids go pro at 18.

4. The best players can take out insurance.

The number of college football fans who turn into All-State agents is amazing. 

Yes, they can take out insurance, but in today's NFL you get your real money in the second contract. And how do you get to a second contract? You have to perform well and hit the open market. The younger you can hit that open market the better.   

Taking out an insurance policy is a stop-gap way to help regulate the inefficiences of a non-market-based system. Refusing to allow someone options, but then offering them insurance isn't a fair choice at all. It's indentured servitude.

5. Rather than make it dirtier, letting top players leave early would actually help clean up college football.

Do you know who the players are who are accepting improper benefits?

The players with a market value that they aren't able to realize because they have to wait three years to go pro. 99% of all improper benefits cases deal with players like Marcus Lattimore, bona fide stars who are forced to remain in the college game even though it's clear they are future first round picks.

If you allowed those players to leave early you'd clean up college football a great deal.

...

As the speed, intensity, and violence of SEC football has increased so has the absurdity of not allowing players to cash in on their talents.

Dozens of top players risk their entire market value on each snap. For nothing. Yet we allow this system to continue and barely spend a second debating its merits. 

The real immorality in college sports? The system that forces adults to risk their future earnings potential for nothing. Indentured servitude, since ruled illegal, hasn't existed anywhere since the late 1800's. Anywhere, that is, but college football.