Youth Knocks at NFL's Door ; Plenty of Teenagers Have Gone Straight from High School into Various Professional Sports Careers. the Exception: Football

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At 19, LeBron James became the National Basketball Association's rookie of the year this week after averaging 21 points per game and leading the once-moribund Cleveland Cavaliers to within one game of a playoff berth.

Mr. James, a multimillionaire many times over, skipped college and went straight to the pros after a stellar high school career in Ohio. It took him little time to adjust to the rigors of an 82-game pro schedule and the challenges of balancing stardom, constant travel, and newfound wealth. He torched grizzled veterans and young stars alike with nary a misstep throughout the season.

With two college stars seeking early entry into the National Football League draft this weekend, the possibility of high school players making a similar leap in the football world came into sharper focus. A range of experts, as well as the NFL and its players union, view such a scenario as heresy.

"I don't think there's any question that they would have big- time problems," says Dr. Doug McKeag, director of the Center for Sports Medicine at Indiana University in Indianapolis. "And I don't think the NFL will ever allow it, regardless of who wants to do it."

Dr. McKeag says football's brutality requires excessive strength, even more so than other sports. He concedes that a handful of high school stars might possess the physical attributes needed to play professional football, but even those rare talents would suffer under the game's crushing psychological burden.

His overwhelming concern focuses on the cutthroat culture of pro football. Unlike other sports leagues, he says, the environment of an NFL locker room requires maturity and mental toughness beyond what any teenager possesses.

Lawyers differ on whether prep stars will eventually gain entry into the NFL draft. Critics of the current policy ask how any league can prohibit a player's earning power with arbitrary rules. Similar legal battles in other sports have been won by players challenging the system. But since 1993, the NFL has required players to be three years removed from their final high school season before turning pro.

Two former college players, Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett and Southern California receiver Mike Williams, are challenging that rule. On Monday, a federal appeals court ruled against them. They now await word from the United States Supreme Court on whether they will be eligible for this weekend's draft.

Eligibility rules in other sports are far less stringent. Teenagers routinely compete at the highest levels of tennis, basketball, and hockey. James, for example, is only the latest in a long line of prep stars making the leap into the NBA. Others include All-Stars Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. Carmelo Anthony, the runner- up in this year's rookie-of-the-year vote, spent just one season at Syracuse University before turning pro.

In baseball, drafting teenagers before they've seen a college campus is routine. Not so in football, where, critics charge, a cartel between colleges and the NFL keeps players from having any leverage until they've spent three years toiling on Saturdays instead of Sundays.

Jack Butler, the president at Blesto Inc., a football scouting service in Pittsburgh, has been assessing player talent for more than 40 years. His firm serves as a consultant to 11 NFL teams.

The punishing demands of pro football, he says, would crush most 17- and 18-year-olds. …