Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney recently wrote a column published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that urged underclassmen who are setting their sights on early entry into the NFL to stay in school.
Rooney's column stated the number of underclassmen entering this year's NFL Draft, which begins on May 8, has nearly doubled since the 2010 draft, from 53 players to 102. Some of the top players in this year's class are, and traditionally have been in previous seasons, underclassmen.
His argument is that a college education and diploma are much more valuable than a few years of additional experience in the league.
Rooney is a big name in football, and coming from a front office guy at the helm of a major NFL franchise, his words certainly hold weight. A few of his points are debatable, but it seems like he's making the argument for the right reasons.
"Making the pros is a long shot, but the rewards, even when success comes, are not worth losing the benefits of a college education when it is time to get on with life's work," Rooney writes.
Rooney knows a thing or two about the inner workings of an NFL franchise, and he claims the teams and coaches would rather see a player stick with it in the college game to get added experience and hone their life skills off the football field.
There's always the possibility a player can get injured during his college career, which could hurt his stock in the NFL. But the risk is small, and the fact the player chose to remain in college and study a particular field would mean he's not limited to an NFL career and nothing else. Rooney says development in college is learning how to be a true professional, no matter what career a player or student chooses to do post-graduation (which some NFL players could certainly use).
"What NFL teams really want to see in a young player is a passion for the sport and a willingness to take the time to learn it well," he writes. "If he is big enough, talented enough, intelligent and works hard, he might earn a spot in the NFL. A small percentage of college players make it to the NFL. The longer a player stays in school, the better chance he has."
A full scholarship offers a player four years of eligibility in the sport over a five-year span, regardless of when he decides to turn pro. In the simplest of terms, an athlete receiving a full scholarship doesn't have to pay to receive a full collegiate education as long as he (or she) fulfills the athletic requirements of said scholarship.
There are hundreds of thousands of college students in the United States (both former and current) who would love to not owe $30,000 in loans after graduation, so a scholarship is an envious thing. Rooney wonders why an athlete would waste such an obviously undervalued aspect by turning pro after three years in school, especially if there's more experience to be had by participating even more in the game an athlete loves.
The most obvious reason for a college athlete to turn pro so soon is for the paycheck. For players this year like South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Clemson's Sammy Watkins, they know they'll be among the top players selected in the first round, which guarantees them a hefty payday.
Hey, if the purpose of going to college is to get an education so a person can work in a particular field to earn money, then why stop a guy like Clowney from making millions of dollars right away? You can't. It's his decision.
Clowney, or even someone like Jameis Winston from Florida State, excel in football. Clowney has had his name out in professional football talk since he was in high school, and the minimum years spent playing college ball were just to satisfy the rules.
Clowney is NFL ready, and has been for a while now. The fact that he's an underclassmen isn't turning teams away from drafting him - front offices have been dreaming about the day the nation's top draft-eligible pass rusher (and top pass-rushing prospect in years) would decide to turn pro. For Clowney, attending South Carolina was just a way to go through the motions of legality.
Clowney is just one example of many underclassmen in this draft - a handful of whom won't make nearly as big of an NFL impact as he will, if any at all.
Rooney wrote in his column that players who complete their education do the best on the field, in their personal lives and in the community spotlight. And for those who don't make it in the NFL, there are always fallback careers or business endeavors, including after NFL retirement. That's what strikes the greatest chord with Rooney, a businessman from a business family.
Sure, it's prototypical for a star college football player to want to play and earn money right away. But for the majority of underclassmen whose names won't be called on the first day of the three-day draft and eventually may have to star in something other than football, they'll be glad their college degree is hanging on the wall.
"College players should not be encouraged to make decisions contrary to their long-term interests by people who are motivated by a desire for short-term, and often illusory, gains," Rooney says. "We will continue to work with colleges, the (NFL) Players Association and others to encourage young men to stay in school. If they make it into the NFL, they have a better opportunity to enjoy long and productive careers and continue to live well for many years after their playing days turn into memories."