Blocking Football's Age Limit

If an 18-year-old can join the Army and face enemy fire, he's old enough to hit against pro football's biggest bruisers.

That's essentially why a US district judge threw out a National Football League rule last week that said players must wait three years after high school before being eligible for the NFL draft. The league will appeal, arguing that the rule protects young men who are often emotionally or physically undeveloped for a violent sport. They also maintain that their system encourages athletes to stay in college.

But those reasons are as vulnerable as a quarterback who holds on to his ball too long. The NFL is the last of the pro sports to insist on an age limit. Happily for Tiger Woods (age 20 when he turned golf pro), hockey's Wayne Gretzky (17 when he decided), and basketball's Kobe Bryant (18), no rule squelched their dreams.

It's unlikely the judge's decision will lead to a stampede of fuzzy-faced teens into the NFL, or hollow out college ball. Those set on a football career spend the years between 18 and 23 "bulking up." Most of them simply aren't physically qualified - and thus would not be chosen anyway - before their preparation is over.

As for college, athletes who have their heart set on pro football are already quitting college early, though in consistently low numbers: about 40 to 50 a year.

The NFL has a financial stake in the status quo. Its relationship with college football amounts to a cost-free feeder system. Not surprisingly, the League doesn't raise this in its defense. Instead, it just strikes the moral tone that it seeks a boy's best interest.

If the NFL really thinks a young man isn't ready for the league, then it should simply not pick him.

But at least let those who want to pursue their dream do so.

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