Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh proposes eligibility for NFL Draft at any time in college players’ careers

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on Thursday called for college football players to have the ability to be selected in the NFL Draft at any point in their college careers. In an open letter provided to CBS Sports, Harbaugh detailed how players should be able to hire an agent, declare for the draft regardless of their year in school and return to college football if they are not selected during the three-day, seven-round draft or do not choose to sign as an undrafted free agent.

Current NCAA rules require football players to be three years removed from high school before departing for the NFL. The NCAA is basically bound to the NFL Players Association’s collective bargaining agreement, which includes that restriction.

Below are a summation of Harbaugh’s thoughts on the matter.

My first proposal is that we put this decision to “go or stay” in the hands of the individual and his family, not in the form of an NFL, NFLPA or NCAA rule, while allowing the player to return to college football if he does not sign. …

There are “early bloomers” capable of competing in the NFL and earning a livelihood at an earlier age. The goal would be to create a scenario that makes adjustments for all current and future student‐athletes that puts the timeline for transition to professional football at their discretion and that of their family. I propose an option that allows them to make the decision that is best for them. Families, and sons could have a clearer, more concise and fact driven approach to their future.

Under Harbaugh’s proposal, if a player is not drafted, he could return to his college team as long as “he remains in academic compliance and does not receive payment from an agent.”

Proposed name, image and likeness regulations would allow athletes to sign with agents but not for the purpose of turning professional or signing with an NFL team. Currently, college basketball players can be represented by certified agents so long as they receive a draft evaluation from the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee.

That relationship must end if the player returns to school, which they are allowed to do without losing eligibility as long as they participate in the NBA Combine.

Harbaugh had made similar comments in October during his weekly in-season press conference.

“I think the fair thing to do would be not to restrict players to have to stay in college for three years,” he said at the time. “They can turn pro at any point.”

However, Thursday’s letter went into detail, also calling for schools to pay for portions of remaining education for underclassmen leaving early.

“Such a policy promotes higher education as a top priority,” he wrote.

Harbaugh also supports a five-year eligibility window without a redshirt clause needed to complete the five years, an idea also championed by his professional organization, the American Football Coaches Association.

He drew upon his own experience to make the point. After being on scholarship for five years at Michigan and “earning a meaningful academic degree,” Harbaugh was drafted in 1987 by the Chicago Bears. He went on to play 14 seasons with four teams.

By my 30th birthday, I was blessed and fortunate to have played professional football for seven years and accumulated enough money to put my family in a good place with a degree that presented opportunities outside football as well.

Among Harbaugh’s proposals:

  • If a player is selected in the draft or signs a free-agent deal, his college eligibility expires. If he is not drafted, the player would retain college eligibility “provided he remains in academic compliance and does not receive payment from an agent.”
  • Depending when the player leaves, the school would be responsible financially for his education covered by a scholarship. If the player departs after one season, he would get one additional year of paid education. If he leaves after two or three years, he would get two paid years. If he leaves after four years, the athlete would get one additional year.
  • The athlete and his family would be able to “consult with and seek advice from” agents and lawyers, retaining eligibility as long as that family does not receive compensation.

Statistics show that approximately one-third of underclassmen who declare for their drafts in both football and basketball aren’t selected.

The average pro career is three to four years. When a players’ pro career is complete, he could return to college to finish his degree. He is then not denied his professional opportunity and is more mature and likely more motivated to finish his college education and receive his degree. He also is uniquely positioned to enhance the educational experience of other classmates on campus. This option creates a scenario more likely for more young men to have reached [30] having earned both a pro career and a college degree.  

In football, only a fraction of players who have played less than three college seasons have been considered slam-dunk NFL prospects. Those include former Georgia star Herschel Walker, former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and current Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. 

The stakes and complexities involved require players to be well-informed and this is the time to begin encouraging them to be intelligent and informed.

Harbaugh continues to support graduate transfers who can transfer immediately upon receiving their undergraduate degrees. He also supports the one-time transfer concept that most likely will be taken up again in January at the NCAA Convention.

Michigan’s coach chose not to comment further on Thursday after releasing the letter to selected media outlets.

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