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As free agency approaches, Dan Rooney urges college players to stay in school

Tennessee v Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 22: The Alabama Crimson Tide enter the field to face the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 22, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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The NFL enjoys a tenuous relationship with college football. The league benefits greatly from a farm system that costs the NFL nothing, allowing the many major college programs to develop players and weed out pretenders and allow the 32 franchises to welcome an annual crop of boys who have become men on someone else’s watch.

In return, the NFL has erected (with the consent of the NFLPA) a barrier to the periodic boys who already are men, able to leap to the NFL before expiration of the mandatory three-year waiting period after high school.

Since the passage of the new labor deal, the NFL has developed a problem. With the lottery prizes at the top of round one eliminated, more and more college players are inclined to leave once their three years have passed, anxious to begin putting in seasons toward a second pro contract limited only by the marketplace.

Responding to the recent trend, Steelers chairman Dan Rooney has penned an op-ed urging players to stay in school.

Published last weekend by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and posted this week by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Rooney blames the dynamic on agents looking for a quick score. But the quick score has been greatly diminished by the rookie wage scale. Before 2011, a player pegged to be a second-round pick could make tens of millions by staying in school one more year and vaulting to the top of the first round. Since 2011, that extra year won’t dramatically increase a player’s potential earnings.

With each human body having a limited number of hits it can take in a lifetime, the sooner those hits are taken for money, the better.

While not every college player should squander his remaining eligibility, those who know that the NFL is ready for them should go as soon as they can, earning real money for the constant physical risks and wear and tear. College will always be there. The cartilage and ligaments and tendons may not.

We won’t address each of Rooney’s points. But if he’s right -- if players should stay in school -- the solution is simple. The league and the union should push the waiting period from three years to four.

The NFL will never do that because the league wants the best of the best players. But for the potential harm opening the floodgates would do to the league’s ability to enjoy the full benefits of a free farm system, the NFL would get rid of the waiting period completely, taking anyone who has the physical skills to make a difference at the pro level, regardless of age.

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