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Sunday, February 29, 2004

NFL Appeals Ruling in Clarett Case: In a move that surprised no one, the NFL has appealed the federal district court ruling in the case of Maurice Clarett. The NFL is asking the Second Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay of Judge Scheindlin's ruling that ordered the league to open its draft to Clarett and other players who have graduated from high school. In the wake of the district court ruling, USC receiver Mike Williams, a sophomore, has declared his intentions to enter the draft, and other players are expected to follow suit.

Editorials on the case continue to pour in. Paul Woody of the Richmond Times-Dispatch asks, Who can fault players that want to leave early for pro football? At least one writer, though, thinks that Clarett may one day wish that he had not opened this door.

While the legal question remains unsettled, the main question many sports fans have is: how will this affect the quality of the play in the NFL? There are a number of people, myself included, that think the quality of play in the NBA has been degraded substantially in the past 15-20 years. Is this because of the influx of players with little or no college experience?

This seems to be a chicken and egg problem. It seems that the trend in the NBA today is for an individualized, one-on-one approach, with less emphasis on teamwork, passing, etc. So many times, a guy will bring the ball up the court, pass to the star, who takes his man one-on-one off the dribble while everyone else stands around and watches. The focus in the NBA is on the "star," the player(s) on each team who has free reign to throw up as many shots as he wants. Often, if he is hot, the team wins, if he is cold, the team loses. This individualized style of play in many ways makes it easier for players to come straight from high school, where they have also been the "star" that was expected to make the big shots and carry the team. You see this today with Lebron James and to some extent, with Carmelo Anthony. The values of beating a man off the dribble and scoring are much more valuable than the skills learned in college, such as running set plays, setting picks, rebounding and passing. So, did the influx of younger players lead to this style of play, or does the development of this style of play allow for an easier transition for younger players? Maybe it's both.

Could this happen in the NFL? Obviously, the NFL is a much different environment than the NBA. Even "skill" positions, with the exception of the quarterback, have other responsibilities such as blocking, special teams and memorizing pages of playbook. Football is, perhaps more than any other sport, a team game -- running backs are useless without an offensive line, quarterbacks need receivers, etc. So, perhaps the impact of "individualization" will be less felt in the NFL and the game will not change to accommodate players that have accumulated less skill. On the other hand, if running backs begin to come from high school and have not learned how to block properly, will teams simply change their offensive systems to remove the need for running back blocking? If the back is picking up 2000 yards a season, will anyone care? Overall, the fact that there are always 11 players on the field will lessen the impact of any one player -- but this does not mean that the game cannot and will not change at all.

Finally, I have heard the arguments that those that oppose early entry into the NFL and NBA are, at best, hypocritical, and at worst, racist. After all, baseball players and hockey players routinely skip college to go to the pros -- where is the outcry over that? My response to that remains the same -- those leagues have established developmental "minor" leagues that provide players with the opportunity to build both the playing skills and the life skills that are needed before they are thrust onto the main stage, with the pressure and fame that comes with it. So long as football and basketball do not have such a program, I will continue to oppose early entry to preserve the overall quality of the game. Basketball has declined-- let's hope that football is not next.

Update: The Sports Economist posts a nice response, laying out alternative reasons for why the quality of play in basketball has declined.


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