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
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. …