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Jim Harbaugh’s NFL Draft rule change proposal is worthy of consideration

The status-quo isn’t working and Harbaugh’s trying to find a solution.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Media Days Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to advocating for certain changes in college football, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is at the forefront. Harbaugh has made it clear he’d like to see the College Football Playoff expanded, he’s been on record in favor of student-athletes being granted a one-time transfer with immediate eligibility. In both of those instances Harbaugh had an easy to digest plan for the changes he’d like to see implemented.

Another proposal of Harbaugh’s was released on Thursday in “An Open Letter to the Football Community”.

The Proposal

  • The student-athlete can declare for the draft after any season they choose: The player can return to college football if he isn’t drafted or doesn’t sign a free agent contract. As long as the student-athlete doesn’t receive payment from an agent, they can return to college football.
  • Promoting higher education as a top priority: The player can complete his degree while in the NFL or continue their degree once their pro career is completed. The university would cover the expense based on the amount of years the student-athlete played in college (Example: two or three years= two additional years of paid schooling)
  • Broadening rules that will allow student-athletes to seek advice from lawyers/agents: As long as the student-athlete doesn’t receive compensation Harbaugh believes “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”.

They say it’s a young man’s world, and Harbaugh realizes this. “In today’s world, many young men and their families perceive college football as preventing them from earning a living as a professional football player,” Harbaugh said. “The is not an unreasonable perception given the rules currently in place.” Harbaugh’s proposal balances keeping higher education as a top priority while also recognizing if an organization like the NFL deems someone worthy of a job that pays well, the NCAA shouldn’t hold that player back just because they haven’t been in school for three years. Harbaugh wants to allow student-athletes and their families, along with the marketplace which in this case is the NFL Draft, to dictate when a player turns pro.

“The proposal described above would allow the individual to pursue his dream as a student and as a professional athlete in the time frame that best suits his best interests of his own free will and ability,” Harbaugh said.

Times are changing in college football, players will soon be able to profit off their name, image, and likeness. And according to Harbaugh his proposal “is the exact same trajectory” by “placing decisions in the hands of the individual and their families”.

Harbaugh’s proposal isn’t radical, it’s common sense. The status quo needs to be debated and challenged in this instance for the betterment of student-athletes on and off a football field. College basketball players are allowed to enter the NBA Draft after one year in school, why can’t college football players follow suit? “If you look at tennis, golf, baseball, hockey, basketball, pretty much all of them, pretty much all of them that have a professional league,” Harbaugh said. “There is no rule that’s in place where they have to be three years removed from high school until they can pursue their professional aspirations.”

It’s time to start allowing student-athletes the power to decide what’s in their best interest, instead of shackling them to outdated rules that were adopted in 1990. “There’s a physical component to the game of football, as we all know. You could be saying, okay, you have to play the six, seven, or eight years but have three of those years be unpaid in college,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the way the rules are right now. What if the individual is physically, mentally, emotionally developed where he can play his average of eight years, six or seven of them as a paid football player? That’s a career decision for that young man.”

From a monetary perspective Harbaugh’s proposal is fair and is a model that puts players interests first and foremost, but it does the same from an academic standpoint as well. “I was watching Isiah Thomas and he was talking about his pro career and then he went back to college and got his degree and he got his Master’s. That’s as good as it gets, it doesn’t get any better than that. You want to see that opportunity for everybody,” Harbaugh said. “Get your degree. If it comes like it did for me with five years in college and then a pro career, that’s fine. That timeline might be better for someone to start college and then have their pro career and then come back and getting their degree. Just having those options, putting their own career, their education and their own fate in their hands and not dictated timelines by rules.”

This is a proposal Harbaugh has thought about for years and released during a moment in history where many Americans, along with college football coaches, are staying at home and have more free time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m fired up to hear from others at the collegiate level, who coach at the pro level and other guys who have played... Desmond Howard, there’s so many that can have an opinion on this,” Harbaugh said. “Coaches, commissioners, athletic directors. All those voices that know this stuff and care about the future of youngsters like my dad.”

More ideas like Harbaugh’s are necessary in order for student-athletes to believe programs that tell them they’re looking out for them. Far too often, especially with the current rules in place in college football, looking out for them is nothing more than lip service. Harbaugh’s proposal goes above and beyond lip service, his proposal would create actions (new rules) that are abundantly in the best interest of student-athletes. Some players perceive themselves as being exploited, Harbaugh’s trying to kill that perception by giving them more leverage and freedom.

Now it’s up to athletic directors, big name coaches like Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, student-athletes, former players young and old, to be part of the discussion Harbaugh has started. The crux of Harbaugh’s proposal is philosophical and has everything to do with maximizing free will. Where will the Saban’s of the world stand on this topic? Will they stay mum and throw these ideas to the wayside in the name of complacency? As the great band Rush once belted out, “if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice”. Or will they choose a path that’s more clear and helps craft policies that improve the lives of college football players?

There’s one coach who’s energized and thinking outside of the box to implement new rules, but Harbaugh can’t create a movement alone. Others will have to jump on board and stand side-by-side with Harbaugh in the name of innovation. The current rules are eroding before our very eyes and there has to be a new way forward with trailblazers lighting the way.