COLLINS: NFL's age rule puts Barkley in bad position

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
  • Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is coming off a stellar sophomore season.
  • Because of NFL age rules, Barkley can't go pro yet. That means he'll be back with PSU in 2017.

Imagine, for a few moments, you’re a young novelist, someone who knew from the time you were 10 you had a way about crafting paragraphs and sentences and story lines your elementary school teachers have been stressing is years ahead of your time.

Imagine that, inspired by the encouragement and the faith, you have begun crafting a masterwork, that you work on it for years, and that upon its completion, you realize that you have achieved greatness. You rush to the publisher. You pitch your work to them because you want to share it with the world, you want to realize your long-held dream of becoming a published novelist and, yes, you want to make some money. Money that can set you and generations of your family on the path to comfort.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (26) runs for a touchdown against the USC Trojans during the first half of the Rose Bowl. Barkley's return is one big reason the Nittany Lions are ranked No. 6 in the preseason Coaches Poll.

Now, imagine the publisher recognizing your talent, lauding your story, reinforcing that you’re every bit as good at this as everyone has always told you. But, sorry, she says, rules are rules. Before you can be recognized as a great novelist, you have to do what essentially is a three-year internship with this — or as it turns out, any — publishing house, you’re told. You’ll make a mere fraction of what you could make if you were just a few years older, and while you’re struggling to get by, you will still have to churn out stories, good ones too, so the publishing house can make some money on their investment in you.

Get through that internship well, and you can make all the money you’d ever imagine needing. No, more. But write one shaky story, or split a few too many infinitives in your haste to get work done, or even get cast aside as an even more-lauded young novelist comes down the road, and you’ll never realize that financial potential you had. It’s not a chance worth taking, you know.

But what other choice do you have?

Imagine how discriminated against you’d feel because you’re a little bit younger than the world thinks you should be to be a success in your industry. Imagine how used by the system you’d think yourself to be.

That’s a hypothetical, and frankly nonsensical, situation.

But with his brilliant performance in the Rose Bowl now settling in, it stands to reason that, maybe, part of Saquon Barkley can understand the point.

Smart thing would be to turn pro: Penn State fans aren’t going to want to hear this, but the smart thing for the Nittany Lions’ star running back to do after he made minced meat out of a USC team loaded with four- and five-star recruits who flailed at him most of the afternoon last Monday would be to leave college. The smart thing would be to pursue a professional football career, because Barkley can do so. Because NFL teams wait, with piles of money, for a player with his skill to arrive. And because people who do what he can do don’t typically have 40 years to make as much money as they can plying their craft; they may, if they’re very good and very lucky, have one-fifth of that.

The issue is that he can’t pursue that type of career, and NFL teams can’t offer him that job even if they want to.

Why? Because the NFL has an antiquated, unjust age requirement that keeps players in college for three years after their high school graduation.

Well-intentioned rule: Unlike so many of the NFL’s other unfair rules, this one is at least well-intentioned at its base.

The NFL is a unique league played by unique athletes. There is no professional minor league, nowhere to develop talent. So, if you want to make a roster, you better be big enough, fast enough, strong enough and mature enough to do so. The league has unscientifically determined that to be all four, a player should be part of a college program, undergo college-level coaching and college-level strength training, for three years.

Their argument against eliminating that rule, which they’ve fought for many years in collective bargaining to protect through the NFL Players Association, is that allowing every young player to pursue employment in the league with two, one or even zero years of college experience would invariably hurt more young men than it would benefit. And, they’re right. That’s not debatable.

Denied right to pursue employment: What we can debate though is whether a human being should be denied the right to pursue gainful employment at a time when his value to employers might be at its highest. That’s essentially what’s happening here, with Barkley and certainly a handful of other true sophomores around the nation.

There’s no question Barkley is ready. He showed burst on his runs this season, breaking big play after big play. So there’s the speed element. He is, save an inch or so of height, the same size as Dallas’ rookie back Ezekiel Elliott, who some think is the MVP in the NFL this season. Search “Saquon Barkley weight room” on Youtube, and you’ll see first-hand he’s plenty strong enough to play professionally right now, too. Oh, and he’s one of the most mature players, a young leader, on a very mature Penn State team.

There’s no box this guy doesn’t check on the way to a big payday.

True prodigy gets hurt: Sure, the NFL’s rule protects pretenders from themselves, but it doesn’t work worth a darn for a guy who is a true prodigy, a stud of a player who would certainly be a first-round pick, and who might very well have been the first running back selected.

So, Barkley will return to Penn State and hope against hope that the injury bug doesn’t finally trip him up and cost him a good chunk of what he’s worth at this moment. And if he gets to a point where he and his family determine playing another down isn’t worth risking what he can still get, there will be some fans who look down on him, the way they looked down on Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette for making that same call for their own careers this past season.

'Right thing' gets overlooked: There are a slew of reasons the NFL will resist lifting the age requirement, led by the fact that the NCAA is more than happy to provide a free-of-cost minor league and college coaches thrilled to exchange open, practically unfettered access to pro scouts during practice for three guaranteed years from their recruits.

There is only one reason, though, to lift it.

Too bad “Because it’s the right thing” is hardly ever on the NFL’s list of reasons to do anything.