The exodus cometh

WHO WOULD HAVE thought a stolen stereo would change the face of college football. After the judge in the <b>Maurice Clarett</b> case opened the door, Southern Cal's <b>Mike Williams</b> tore it off its hinges. And unless the NFL wins an appeal, its going to get worse. Much worse. For college football, for the NFL, for the players. There aren't many winners here.. save for the agents.

It didn't start out this way—as a challenge to allow all college and graduating high school players to enter the NFL draft. And ultimately, Ohio State quietly announced they found no improper educational benefits bestowed upon any athlete, Maurice Clarett included. But in the face of that maelstrom, new charges surfaced.

Clarett previously reported $10K in stereo equipment, CDs, clothes and cash stolen from his car. He inflated the amount. The NCAA investigated. OSU said Clarett repeatedly misled investigators and received special benefits from a family friend worth thousands of dollars.

The Buckeyes suspended Clarett the entire season. The freshman challenged the NFL rule regarding underclassmen—and prevailed.

Some suggest the climate was one of fear at OSU at the time.. that they didn't suspend Clarett a few games but rather for the entire year so they wouldn't get nailed with NCAA sanctions themselves. While the severity of the punishment was indeed curious, it seems unlikely there was any quid-pro-quo.

Not that any of that matters.

What is relevant—the smiling sharks in suits who will now convince freshman phenoms to enter the draft. Sophomores will abruptly leave the classroom behind for good on a Friday in January and be working out with a personal trainer the following Monday.

And high school stars will suddenly believe they can leap from competing against local schoolboy competition to the best the world has to offer.

IT USED TO BE juniors went pro if it appeared a high first-round pick was in the offing. Then the bar was lowered to anywhere in the first round. Now, for some, its just a matter of if they'll be drafted—in any round. Case in point; Devard Darling.

Darling had some brilliant catches in ‘03. He was also under-thrown on several plays that could have been huge, just as he was in ‘02. He had some drops that made you scratch your head. Bottom line: A solid if unspectacular year—not the kind of season many had envisioned, but still, there is little doubt Darling is a great talent.

But there is also immense talent at wide receiver in this draft, more than normal and more than will be a year from now. Most projections therefore put Darling anywhere between a third and fifth round selection. Every indication is he would have significantly increased his draft stock by staying one more year.

He's still going pro. No matter the junior year he had, it looks like he was gone.

But what's really troubling: Had this ruling been in place a year earlier, would he even have been wearing the Crimson and Gray in '03? Darling's sophomore campaign was sensational. The clamor for him to come out early would have been so much greater a year ago.

Imagine what '03 would have been like without Will Derting. How about Calvin Armstrong? After his sophomore year, he was repeatedly mentioned at as a potential All-America tackle for '03 .

Armstrong has the talent and work ethic to become a great pro. But was he ready to come out after '02? Was he ready to come out this year, before his senior season? Nay, Armstrong will be that much more prepared, that much better a professional by staying through his senior year. There is no question and there is no doubt.

Eventually, the trickle down effect will go from the star running backs and wide receivers, (those generally thought able to best make the leap), to the linebackers and the defensive backs to the quarterbacks and the linemen.

Every freshman or sophomore who puts together a great season will be told he should jump. They'll be told this, repeatedly, by the leering agents and the Mark Mays' of the world and all the other flotsam that populates the outer rings of college football.

They'll tell him he will be a star. They'll appeal to his ego and discount his competition. They'll tell him everything he wants to hear. It will be non-stop.

And it will be a lie.

CONSIDER THE OLD STANDBY—that risking injury is a foolish gambit by seniors-to-be. Because that little chestnut will now be tossed at the sophomores and juniors-to-be. Is it valid?

Go ahead and write down all the players who returned for their senior year, suffered a significant injury, and watched their draft status plummet. Not much of a list.

Willis McGahee chose to forego his final year and enter the draft—despite having suffered a catastrophic knee injury less than four months earlier—and he was STILL a first round pick.

He still signed a big-time contract potentially paying him $15.5 million over five years. Never mind the fact that, after tearing THREE ligaments, McGahee was unable to run laterally or make cuts at the time of his selection.

Would he have been drafted higher if he hadn't been injured? Of course. But being selected No. 23 overall means his draft status didn't drop like a stone after the injury, in contrast to what so many agents love to preach.

McGahee's own agent admitted as much, blustering on and on it was "a deal that, including incentives, will give him the chance to be paid as a top-10 pick."

Yet 18-22 year-old kids will continue to be told they're foolish not to come out early. And they'll listen.

WHY DID THIS have to happen? Reports have surfaced that the judge in the Clarett case, Shira Scheindlin, had decided in his favor but was hesitant to issue the ruling. Indications were Clarett, at that moment in time, was strongly considering returning to Ohio State this season.

Reportedly, Scheindlin didn't want to set landmark legislation if Clarett wasn't going to follow through; to do his part by entering the draft.

Are you kidding me?

Is this about setting precedent or is it about making the correct ruling? Surely, this interpretation was made upon the merits of the case. Surely, the setting of precedent had no bearing on her decision. Tell me this wasn't about some judge's ego.

If this ruling stands, a mass departure of college football's best players will begin after the last bowl game. You'll never know for sure who's staying until after the deadline. Players will adamantly state they are returning for another year in college, as Rien Long did in '03 and Mike Williams did this year. Days later, they'll change their minds.

A few select high-schoolers will leave AFTER going through the entire recruiting process. Recruit-nicks are already eagerly watching every move they make, falling in love with their potential. But just before Signing Day, they'll spurn all the college choices and declare themselves ready to compete on the NFL stage.

As bad as it will be for fans, it pales in comparison to what college coaches face. They'll have but a few short weeks to franticly recruit last-minute JC talent, attempting to partially fill the void left by departing potential superstars. Adding to the challenge, most of the best JUCO talent will have already committed elsewhere.

I dislike seeing any athlete depart early but surely, prohibiting seniors-to-be from entering the draft is wrong. It is unfair to those select few players who actually are ready—players such as Drew Bledsoe. But going any further down the line is just as wrong.

Sophomores shouldn't be eligible for the draft. Nor should freshmen or high school athletes. AND the current system needs an overhaul because its been corrupted.

LONG BEFORE the Clarett case, there were reports of agents and their runners falling all over themselves contacting SC's Williams, plus his friends and family members, to implore him to challenge the draft rule.

By convincing a player to come out early, the agent claims a double victory—its that much more competitive among his peers to earn a player's services if said athlete has one more collegiate year of performance, publicity and hype.

(You don't suppose that's the real reason they implore athletes to come out early, rather than the possibility of injury..?)

Eliminate that contact.

Enact hard and fast rules so any agent soliciting players, before they declare themselves eligible and receive NFLPA certification, gets slapped silly with penalties. One time severe and/or repeat offenders lose the ability to represent new clients from that year's class. Period.

Why so harsh? Because their reasons for wanting athletes to come out early are always, ALWAYS self-serving.

Also, players such as Long don't even take advantage of the system in place, never requesting an NFL survey of where they'd likely be drafted. WSU coaches took it upon themselves, showing him NFL evaluations that he'd likely go in the 4th round. But by then, his decision, (with input from oh so many others), had already been made.

The survey should be mandatory for entrants. It would have been nice for Long to have seen the list, before deciding, and then comparing it to what the agents and Mark May were whispering in his ear. There was speculation he'd be a 1st round pick. No wonder..

"I asked advice from (May) and many others. I talked to everyone... Tons of agents. All sorts of people," Long said, making clear he had no regrets.

If a player leaves early, trust he's made the best decision for himself and wish him well. But do more to ensure its his decision, not one significantly influenced by some third party's self-serving agenda.

Williams' departure helps the rest of the Pac-10 and hurts USC in ‘04. But I'd much rather see Karl Paymah battling him in Martin Stadium this year. Paymah is a star in the making—a potential shut down corner—and I'd relish the chance to watch him take on one of the best receivers in the game. As of now, that will never happen.

Until now, we've been left to wonder the ‘what ifs' with regard to only the juniors who leave early. What if Ryan Leaf had stayed. What if Phillip Bobo had returned his senior year. What if Devard Darling was playing in ‘04. What if Rien Long had played for the Cougs this year..

Now, many more names will be added to the ledger. Juniors-to-be. Gone. One-and-done sophomores. Gone. High school phenoms. Gone.

The exodus cometh. And it's a damn shame.

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