Walk past any newsstand these days and you'll find an astonishing number of 2006 NFL draft publications, invariably featuring
Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart,Vince Young, or some combination of all three on the covers.
On sports talk radio, callers want the
Jets to draft Leinart, no make that Young, no make it offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson - it depends on the day and the
caller. ESPN and regional cable TV sports networks will devote countless hours to researching the potential draftees and how
they will fit with their new teams.
The NFL draft has become more than a cottage industry.It's a big business that has made a star out of analysts like Mel Kiper
Jr. and brought minor celebrity to others who do nothing but watch college football games between August and January and
study players on videotape the rest of the year.
The sports press will cover the team's "War Rooms," where multimillion dollar decisions will be made. On draft day, football
fans clad in their favorite team's jersey will pour into Radio City Music Hall looking like escapees from the Halloween Day
Parade in Greenwich Village. It's a veritable football orgy in April, more than 2 1/2 months after the Super Bowl and almost
three before teams open training camp.
It's a cause for celebration.
But is the NFL draft legal? Doesn't it violate antitrust laws and artificially drive down the price that, say, a Bush, Leinart,
Ferguson, or Young could get on the open market if there was true competition for their services? Doesn't it prevent
companies, in this case NFL teams, from bidding for talent? Doesn't it intentionally keep down the salaries of the 270 or so
players who will enter the NFL through this form of entry-level hiring?
Football fans come out of hibernation in their best tailgate-stadium attire to celebrate what is essentially a restraint of trade.
NFL owners are able to stage a draft because the Players Association has given them a go-ahead through the Collective
Bargaining process. The NFL gets a statutory exemption from antitrust laws because the owners and players agreed that it was
okay to hold a draft, even though college players are left with few rights.
So it's time to salute the most perfect form of socialism ever invented. The NFL, where all 32 owners share money, has
devised a way of divvying up college athletes that under most other circumstances would be illegal.
In essence, NFL owners have perfected a system to the point at which they don't have to compete for the top college students,
who are eager to enter the unique business world that is professional football. The teams automatically get the top applicants.
Imagine accounting companies just going to Wharton or Harvard Business School and drafting students without the students
themselves getting any say about where they go or for how much. It can't be done.
The college players buy into the notion that they don't need choices. And maybe the top players don't because they are
guaranteed millions of dollars in signing bonuses after the draft. The drafted players are guaranteed jobs. Whether they keep
their positions depends on how well they do once they report the following month.
Very few players have bucked the system. Ohio State linebacker Tom Cousineau was taken as the top overall pick in 1979 by
the Buffalo Bills, but he didn't want to play for the Bills and signed with the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes. In
those days, the CFL had some money to throw around and the NFL wasn't handing out $5 million signing bonuses like it does
The only way for a top athlete to exercise any control over where he goes is by insulting the city he may be going to or by
playing another sport. In 1983, John Elway couldn't stand the thought of playing for Robert Irsay's Baltimore Colts and signed
a contract with George Steinbrenner's Yankees. While Elway was patrolling the outfield for the New York-Penn League's
Oneonta Yankees, the frustrated Colts dealt his rights to the Denver Broncos.
In 1986, Bo Jackson couldn't see himself running behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive line, so he signed a contract
with the Kansas City Royals. Jackson did eventually play in the NFL for the Los Angeles Raiders. Two years ago, top pick Eli
Manning wasn't too pleased with the prospect of playing in San Diego, so he forced a trade to the Giants.
The last time the top college players had a real career choice was between 1983 and 1985, when the United States Football
League was in existence. Players like Jim Kelly had a choice between the USFL's Houston Gamblers and the NFL's Buffalo
Bills. He went to Houston. In 1983, Herschel Walker signed with the USFL's New Jersey Generals after his junior season
because, at that point, the NFL did not allow underclassmen to enter the draft despite being more than qualified to enter the
work force in just about any other field.
Two decades later, that option is defunct, and college athletes with highly specialized skills have no say about where they ply
their trade. Sometimes, they can't even ply it at all. When Ohio State's Maurice Clarett and USC's Mike Williams sued to enter
the NFL draft in 2002 after their sophomore years in college, they won the original case, but it was overturned on appeal and
their careers were dealt irreparable harm.
College applicants are also slotted into a sliding salary scale. The no. 1 pick will get the most money; the final player chosen
gets the least. That means players chosen in the final round would be better off not being taken because "free agents" can shop
their talents around and wind up with a higher salary than a player taken in the seventh round.
As it stands, there is very little a college player seeking entry into the NFL workforce can do to change the system until 2013,
when the present Collective Bargaining Agreement ends. Lawsuits won't work because the NFL has the antitrust exemption
thanks to its most valuable employees the players. The NFL draft is the perfect system for the owners to control costs and
limit players' options, and that alone, at least for the owners, is a cause for celebration.