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NFL tries to defend indefensible quarters rule

Christian McCaffrey

Carolina Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey (22) leads a group in a drill during the NFL football team’s minicamp in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, June 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)


The NFL’s effort to tiptoe around the proprietors of its free farm system knows no limits.

In response to a renewed assault on the rule that keeps players from colleges that operate on a quarters system away from most if not all of the offseason program due to the timing of final exams in classes players aren’t taking, the league has attempted to defend the rule and/or minimize its impact.

After posting on Twitter a link to the PFT story regarding the complaints about the rule, NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent ran a link to the league’s explanation of the so-called “May 16 Rule.” Here’s the language of the rule:

1. “Players who attend schools with final examinations that conclude prior to May 16 may fully participate in any activities (i.e., tryout, physical examination, three-day post-Draft rookie minicamp, or RFDP) at a club’s facility beginning May 15.”

2. “Players who attend schools with final examinations that conclude after May 16 may not participate in any activities other than the three-day post-Draft rookie minicamp until after the player’s final day of examinations.”

3. “Players who have withdrawn from school may not attend any club activity (other than the three-day post-Draft Rookie minicamp) or be visited at his campus or residence, or any other location, by any club personnel or club representative if final examinations have yet to conclude at the school. This includes drafted players, any undrafted players that have signed as free agents, and any undrafted players that have not signed.”

The league explains that the rule “is an NFL effort to make sure that drafted rookies who have yet to graduate can finish their college educations without pressure to drop out to join their new NFL club.” The league also notes that the rule was adopted in 1990 because players were indeed leaving school after being drafted.

“Graduation rates were very important to colleges then, as they are now,” the NFL explains. “When drafted players dropped out without graduating, it created an issue for the colleges. The American Football Coaches Association -- an association of football coaches and staff on all levels -- reacted by locking pro scouts off of college campuses.”

There’s a serious problem with that logic, in light of current circumstances. Given the importance of the pre-draft process, players no longer drop out of college to join their NFL teams after being drafted. They drop out of college after their eligibility expires. As a result, players who left school months ago can’t participate in offseason workouts because of a rule that has no relevance to them because they aren’t taking exams at all.

The league justifies the rule in part by arguing that, "[i]f dropouts were allowed to report to their clubs early, the student-athletes who remain in school would be put in a competitive disadvantage. . . . They could face pressure from clubs and their fans to participate in offseason activities.”

That competitive disadvantage (if there truly was one) still exists for players who choose one of the six schools where the rule currently applies: Washington, Northwestern, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, and UCLA. While players from every other school are participating in offseason programs, players from those six schools are excluded for arbitrary and outdated reasons.

As to players like Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, the impact of the rule is lessened by the job security that comes from being a top-10 draft pick. For low-round picks and undrafted free agents from Washington, Northwestern, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, and UCLA, the inability to participate in the offseason program could be the kiss of death for a budding NFL career.

Nothing the NFL has said supports clinging to the rule. Unless the it changes, the message to any aspiring NFL player being recruited by major college programs is clear: Don’t go to Washington, Northwestern, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, or UCLA.

Which means that the coaches from those schools should be leading the charge to dump the May 16 Rule. As high school players and their parents become more informed and sophisticated, why would anyone who hopes to parlay the kind of football talent that leads to a scholarship offer at a major college program into an NFL career go to a school where an eventual NFL career will be delayed by a rule designed to win a battle that already has been lost?

And if the NFL genuinely wants to help college football programs boost their graduation rates, the best way to do it would be to disband the pre-draft process entirely, scrapping the all-star games, Scouting Combine, Pro Day workouts, and other things that routinely compel aspiring NFL players to quit going to college so that they can focus their efforts on putting on the best show possible for scouts.