At 19, LeBron James became the National Basketball Association's rookie of the year this week after averaging 21 points per game and leading the once-moribund Cleveland Cavaliers to within one game of a playoff berth.
Mr. James, a multimillionaire many times over, skipped college and went straight to the pros after a stellar high school career in Ohio. It took him little time to adjust to the rigors of an 82-game pro schedule and the challenges of balancing stardom, constant travel, and newfound wealth. He torched grizzled veterans and young stars alike with nary a misstep throughout the season.
With two college stars seeking early entry into the National Football League draft this weekend, the possibility of high school players making a similar leap in the football world came into sharper focus. A range of experts, as well as the NFL and its players union, view such a scenario as heresy.
"I don't think there's any question that they would have big-time problems," says Dr. Doug McKeag, director of the Center for Sports Medicine at Indiana University in Indianapolis. "And I don't think the NFL will ever allow it, regardless of who wants to do it."
Dr. McKeag says football's brutality requires excessive strength, even more so than other sports. He concedes that a handful of high school stars might possess the physical attributes needed to play professional football, but even those rare talents would suffer under the game's crushing psychological burden.
His overwhelming concern focuses on the cutthroat culture of pro football. Unlike other sports leagues, he says, the environment of an NFL locker room requires maturity and mental toughness beyond what any teenager possesses.
Lawyers differ on whether prep stars will eventually gain entry into the NFL draft. Critics of the current policy ask how any league can prohibit a player's earning power with arbitrary rules. Similar legal battles in other sports have been won by players challenging the system. But since 1993, the NFL has required players to be three years removed from their final high school season before turning pro.
Two former college players, Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett and Southern California receiver Mike Williams, are challenging that rule. On Monday, a federal appeals court ruled against them. They now await word from the United States Supreme Court on whether they will be eligible for this weekend's draft.
Eligibility rules in other sports are far less stringent. Teenagers routinely compete at the highest levels of tennis, basketball, and hockey. James, for example, is only the latest in a long line of prep stars making the leap into the NBA. Others include All-Stars Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. Carmelo Anthony, the runner-up in this year's rookie-of-the-year vote, spent just one season at Syracuse University before turning pro.
In baseball, drafting teenagers before they've seen a college campus is routine. Not so in football, where, critics charge, a cartel between colleges and the NFL keeps players from having any leverage until they've spent three years toiling on Saturdays instead of Sundays.
Jack Butler, the president at Blesto Inc., a football scouting service in Pittsburgh, has been assessing player talent for more than 40 years. His firm serves as a consultant to 11 NFL teams.
The punishing demands of pro football, he says, would crush most 17- and 18-year-olds. In addition, Mr. Butler says temptations to try their luck in the draft would cost many young players a chance to go to college and develop career alternatives if football doesn't pan out."It's just a bad idea all the way around," he says. "Those boys aren't ready for the pro game. And what happens if they don't make it?"
Others point to the opinion of Gene Upshaw, the top executive at the NFL Players Association. Mr. Upshaw, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman during his playing career with the Oakland Raiders, has, along with the union, been steadfast in supporting the league's position.
"I think Gene is very sincere in this," says Gary Roberts, director of the sports law program at Tulane University. "He's not just going along with what [NFL Commissioner] Paul Tagliabue says. He really believes kids should not be out there on an NFL field. Coming from a guy who played the game at its highest levels, that means something."
Mr. Roberts believes the league will prevail in its campaign to keep younger players out of the draft. He cites the inclusion of draft requirements in the NFL collective bargaining agreement as a strong precedent for future legal rulings to keep the current system intact.
Many observers come back to football's physical demands. Even compared with the rough-and-tumble world of hockey, they say, pro football requires more raw strength and brute force.
McKeag points to many of the college players eligible for this weekend's seven-round NFL draft. Many of those players, he says, have been transformed through several years of college football and attendant off-season weight and conditioning programs.
A typical example: Robert Gallery, the Iowa offensive lineman pegged as the best in this draft. He arrived at Iowa as a 6-ft., 7 in., 240-pound tight end. By the end of his college career, Mr. Gallery weighed 323 pounds and transformed into a monster lineman.
"Look at the differences between a freshman football player and a senior," McKeag says. "It's amazing."
Beyond physical maturity, experts say allowing high school stars into the NFL draft would only exacerbate the problem of young players prematurely setting their sights on big-time sports careers.
Roberts, the Tulane law professor, says one benefit for colleges would be the presence on campus of fewer athletes who are there only to further their professional prospects.
"It would make it more about true students," he says. "From the players' perspectives, though, they're better off with the way it is now."
Something few consider is the mental demand of playing in the NFL, says Randy Cross, a CBS broadcaster who spent 13 years in the league. Few high school players have to memorize revamped playbooks once a season, much less on a weekly basis, he says.
Beyond that, 18-year-olds can't knock heads with players five and 10 years older for a sustained period of time. The NFL season is far longer and more grueling than both college and high school schedules.
Most of all, Mr. Cross fears a surfeit of has-beens in their early 20s. Bounced out of the game (the average NFL career spans three to four years), or worse, and with only a high school diploma in hand, what will they do next?
"This may sound harsh," he says. "But I think McDonald's has enough people to work at their counter already."