The NCAA Should Let Undrafted Underclassmen Return To College Football

The NCAA rule that prevents college football underclassmen who declare for the NFL Draft—but are not picked—from returning to school benefits no one, and ought to be scrapped.
May 9, 2016, 6:05pm
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

For the 253 football players selected in this year's NFL Draft, the talent pipeline from college to the league worked reasonably well. But for 30 other players, all of them underclassmen, it could work much better.

Those 30 athletes not only went undrafted, but also had to give up a year of campus eligibility in order to have a shot at being drafted. Now they can't go back to school, and they face an uphill battle in the NFL. Even the very best of them will receive a maximum signing bonus of $10,000, and according to agent Kyle Dolan at Priority Sports, they have about a 20 percent chance of making a league roster.


"It has happened and it will continue to happen," Dolan said. "I think part of what happens is part of it might be that they didn't perform well at the (NFL) Combine, but part of it might be that their stock wasn't as high as (they thought) it was at the combine."

Look, for some of those players, being undrafted isn't so bad: it arguably can be preferable to pick a team where you have the best chance of succeeding instead of being picked by a team that isn't a great fit in the later rounds of the draft.

For others, however, returning to school—either to complete their degrees, attempt to boost their draft stock, or both—would be their best option. So why doesn't the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which supposedly exists to promote education, allow that?

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Currently, association rules prevent undrafted underclassmen who declare for the NFL Draft from going back to college football. The basic justification for this is that most prospective draftees hire agents, and having an agent means you're no longer an amateur, because amateurs don't hire agents, and blah blah blah let's ride a carousel of circular logic.

The truth is, the current treatment of undrafted underclassmen doesn't serve anyone or anything well—not the athletes, not their teams, not degree attainment, not good football—and seems to exist mostly to punish players who are thinking about leaving school early.

Ohio State's Tyvis Powell was among the 30 college football underclassmen who declared for the NFL Draft but were not selected. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There's nothing wrong with a football player trying to make money playing football, or potentially departing campus after three years in order to do so. College isn't for everyone. Dropping out or taking time off from one's studies to pursue a more lucrative immediate opportunity isn't unheard of in other industries—it worked out OK for Mark Zuckerberg—and moreover, it's easy to understand how a NCAA football player could tire of watching everyone else cash in but him, even if he isn't a highly-coveted NFL pick.

That said, the current system treats underclassmen who declare for the draft as if they've committed an unforgivable offense by merely expressing interest in the NFL—like they're married guys who were caught with a Tinder profile, and now must be thrown out of the house forever, along with their clothes and burning sedan.


Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. In fact, it isn't this way in other college sports. Unlike football players, campus baseball and hockey players don't have to "declare" for the draft. They're either drafted or not, and then regardless of their draft status, they can choose whether to return to school or go pro. It doesn't hurt anybody, and so long as athletes don't hire agents, it doesn't violate the NCAA's ever-changing definition of amateurism.

Why should college football be different?

"I don't know that I have a good answer there," Dolan said. "One of the problems you run into in football is in the period between when the season ends and the draft, agents are frequently providing benefits to players leading up to the draft."

Said benefits are only a problem in the mind of the NCAA and its member schools—players find the prohibition absolutely ridiculous. But for argument's sake, and because the association is not going to let go of amateurism until federal antitrust courts make it, let's put aside the filthy unspeakable horror of athletes getting gifts and loans from prospective business partners and instead focus on football underclassmen becoming ineligible merely by declaring for the draft.

That needs to change. It needs to be scrapped. If the NFL wants to make athletes "declare" for its draft in order to have an idea of which players to evaluate, that's cool. More power to the league. But those declarations should have nothing to do with the NCAA's eligibility rules. None.


Instead, football should be the same as baseball and hockey. If an athlete goes undrafted, and they are in good academic standing, they should be able to continue with their college sports career—and the same goes for any athletes who fall further in the draft than they expected.

Moreover, there's no good reason why football players shouldn't be allowed to get advice from or sign with agents and still be considered "amateurs." The NCAA could monitor these relationships if it wanted to—making sure athletes aren't getting those awful, awful extra benefits—the same way it already polices extra benefits from agents.

If undrafted underclassman Darius Latham returned to Indiana, who would be hurt? Photo by Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

College athletes can be overly optimistic about their NFL prospects. They get bad information, or misunderstand information, about their draft potential. They take unsubstantiated media reports as evidence their stock is higher than they think, or, according to Dolan, "teams might say 'we have a late grade on you' and then not pick them."

"We try to provide advice and realistic feedback as much as possible," he said. "We'll reach out to people who work for NFL teams and try to develop their understanding of what their view of the player is."

This will always be an imperfect process. And that's fine. But college football underclassmen shouldn't be made to suffer for it. They shouldn't be NFL Draft-shamed. Right now, they're asked to gamble: finish school, or go see if they have the potential to make money.

This is an unnecessary choice. Even college basketball has a more transparent system: underclassmen can declare their eligibility, work out for teams, get feedback on their potential draft position, and then withdraw from the draft and maintain their NCAA eligibility.

Nobody in the NCAA system suffers when an athlete returning to school. To contrary, everyone benefits: players get more time to shine on the field and work in the classroom; coaches and teams get experienced, proven talent; fans get to enjoy familiar faces for another season. Win-win-win. If the point of college sports is to do right by its participants—and not simply to control them in order to make a few extra bucks—then change is long overdue.