Protecting College Football Players from the Draft Process: Combine Everyone

The current collective bargaining agreement governing the NFL disenfranchises college athletes entering the draft process, leaving them at the mercy of management. 

In late February every year, NFL owners and their respective staffs flock to Indianapolis to see an athletic showcase, labeled a Combine, with select draft eligible collegiate football players. To be clear, this event is largely about confirming what scouts have seen on tape; elite prospects are as big, strong, and fast as they appear during their collegiate careers. If this sounds like pageantry, it is. Among the bigger headlines this year was reigning Heisman trophy winner Kyler Murray’s hand size. Nevertheless, the NFL Combine captivates football fans across the country by providing hope their team can right the ship by drafting one of the strongest performers at the combine.

Similar to any group interview, being invited as a prospective NFL employee serves as a badge of worthiness. It signals you belong among your peers and that you are capable of performing your craft at an elite level. Thus, equally important to an invitee is being deemed ineligible or being banned by the league. It brands players as inferior and unworthy, signaling to teams in the league and the general public that this particular player is damaged goods. This process can force a player to turn his focus away from football and towards damage control. Why? NFL teams are still free to schedule individual workouts with banned players, so the ban negatively affects players’ draft status, costing them millions in the process. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t merely an academic overview of the power and capabilities of the NFL. At some point leading up to the 2019 Combine, the following policy memo was circulated: 

“An invited prospect will not be permitted to participate in any aspect of the Combine if a background check reveals a conviction of a felony or misdemeanorinvolving violence or use of a weapon, domestic violence, sexual offense and/or sexual assault”

NFL Memo

This policy was enforced and three players were banned from participating. Notably, the league has created an exception allowing players to attend for physicals and certain interviews, illustrating the policy is merely a smokescreen making it appear they have taken a stance against violence (which they should). In reality, as the league’s exception to the rule makes clear, they are acting out of the best interests of the teams – not the players or the public. Further, emphasis of the draft process is protecting teams from wasting a draft pick by ensuring teams have information to accurately value players. 

As previously noted, the NFL is a private employer and their players are represented by a union, the NFLPA. Thus, the mutually agreed upon collective bargaining agreement governing the terms and conditions of players’ employment within the league is administered pursuant to the NLRA. This comprehensive Act lays out, in great detail, what actions are lawful during the course of contract negotiation and administration. But there is one important caveat: the Act restricts a bargaining unit (in the case of the NFL, the current players) from resorting to self-help when the basis of the grievance is a non-mandatory term or condition of employment or does not involve members of the unit. Although the current collective bargaining agreement lays out the general format for the combine, former colligate football players auditioning for the NFL are not yet members of the bargaining unit. This prevents the NFLPA, and in turn current players, from engaging in any significant self-help such as striking or boycotting the NFL over issues concerning the draft process. Ultimately, this leaves collegiate athletes with little to no bargaining power upon entering the NFL draft pool, making policies such as bans on players with violence related convictions difficult to change.

Faced with the reality of being forced to accept certain policies by the NFL, prospective NFL athletes are effectively without representation until being drafted. Although becoming an NFL athlete is prestigious and lucrative, it is not worth locking young athletes into their past by giving them a scarlet letter, in the form of a Combine ban, to start their careers. Notwithstanding the exceptions to the ban, which unquestionably eviscerates the effectiveness of the rule, the fact an athlete can be banned still sends a message. If an athlete, who is an adult per the draft’s eligibility criteria has been punished by the criminal justice system they should be able to fully participate in the Combine to show they have grown and overcome their mistake – unless owners are threatened with club forfeiture for criminal conduct. It is time the league looked in the mirror and realized acceptance and forgiveness is the cure to their image problem, not perpetuating an “us and them” narrative around certain players.

By Tony DiPerna

Photo Credit: Logan Bowles/NFL

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