Leonard Fournette Is Proof NFL's Three-Year Rule Is Un-American

Louisiana State running back Leonard Fournette leaves the field after scoring three touchdowns against Auburn at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on September 19. Erich Schlegel/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

Louisiana State University running back Leonard Fournette is not only the best player in college football, the 6’1”, 230-pound sophomore from New Orleans is also the most dominant. Fournette runs past people or he runs through people, a refreshing throwback, in this aerial circus era of college football, to the Southeastern Conference’s '80s legends such as Herschel Walker of Georgia or Bo Jackson of Auburn. “Heavy-legged backs,” as Frank Broyles used to call them. It’s hard to say exactly who, or what, Fournette reminds you of most, but perhaps a cow catcher should be part of his uniform.

Through four games, two of them versus SEC West opponents, Fournette is averaging 216 yards per game. That’s 56 yards, or a full 35% better, than the second-best rusher in the nation to this point in the season, Tyler Ervin of San Jose State (160 yards per game). Watch a few minutes of Fournette highlights and you begin to understand why, when he was 12, the parents of opposing players in his New Orleans “park ball” league sent out a petition to have him banned.

Fournette was a physical mismatch in park ball then and is a physical mismatch in college football now. He’s the type of locomotive about whom most defensive backs say, “You couldn’t pay me enough to tackle him one on one,” and at the moment, no one attempting to do so is being paid at all (outside of scholarship, room and board, etc.). In terms of talent, Leonard Fournette already belongs in the NFL right now and certainly will next year.

But Fournette will not be. And the choice is not up to him.

In the National Football League’s draft rules, under the heading “Player Eligibility,” the opening sentence begins thusly: “To be eligible for the draft, players must have been out of high school for three years…” That clause is beneficial to almost everyone involved in this dynamic. To begin with, the rule benefits players: Almost all college football players, even the ones who will one day draw an NFL paycheck, are unprepared for the rigors of professional football after two years of school. And, as anyone who has children or has coached them will attest, most young people of that age have a higher regard for their talents than the rest of the world does.

In short, the rule protects college football players from themselves.

Of course, the rule also benefits the NFL, the multibillion-dollar industry that is college football, and even us, the fans. Major League Baseball, as you know, has an intricate and well-oiled minor league system where players develop, a system whose cost the MLB must underwrite. The NFL, on the other hand, completely through an accident of history—college football pre-dates the NFL and was far more popular until the 1960s—benefits by having an outside organization groom its young talent at no expense to itself.

Yes, you’ve read these arguments before, so I will breeze through the remainder of them. Schools at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level are able to offer a superior product by having talent that remains on campus for three years as opposed to one, as happens in college basketball. We fans happily consume that superior product, in part because we get to know the players on our favorite teams better. While Kentucky basketball is unapologetically mercenary, and its fans appear to have come to terms with rooting for a glorified AAU team each winter, college gridiron fans know that even if Johnny Manziel redshirts one year and wins the Heisman Trophy the next, as the former Texas A&M quarterback did in 2011 and 2012, he still must return for an encore season. In college football, familiarity often breeds obsession.

The problem with the three-year rule, then, is not a matter of it harming more people than it benefits. The problem is that it is inherently un-American. Even if you are not so cynical as to believe that the NFL and FBS schools want this rule to remain in place to serve their own interests, you have to wonder how patronizing such a rule is toward the young men it supposedly protects.

“I would still rather put the fate of Fournette and talented phenoms like him into the hands of [universities and football coaches],” USA Today columnist Christine Brennan wrote last week in a column titled “Not Even Leonard Fournette Should Be Allowed Early NFL Entry,” “than I would into the hands of agents—some good, some not—who would be leading their charge into the NFL.”

Here’s a bizarre suggestion: Why not put the fate of Fournette into the hands of Fournette? Will a few absurdly deluded underclassmen make horrible and perhaps life-altering career choices as a result of abolishing the NFL’s three-year rule? Absolutely. Did you choose french fries instead of the salad as your side with lunch?

Brennan routinely covers tennis, where male and female adolescents younger than Fournette turn pro every month, and almost all of them fail to metamorphosize into Serena Williams (who never attended college) or Rafael Nadal (likewise). Jared Donaldson, a native of Providence, Rhode Island, is 19 years old and the 153rd-ranked player in the world. Not only did Donaldson never attend college, but he spent 2 ½ of his high school years practicing on red clay in Argentina.

Whether or not Donaldson’s fate is better off in the hands of his agents at Octagon than it might have been in the hands of a coach at, say, Southern California or Virginia, schools that have, between them, won the last seven NCAA men’s tennis championships, appears not to be a topic of concern. What I do know is that Donaldson is younger than Fournette and has already earned $250,000 in his professional career, and no one seems upset about that college degree he is neglecting.

When Tiger Woods departed Stanford University in 1996 after two seasons, he was to collegiate golf what Fournette is to college football. Maybe even better. At the time, Sandy Tatum, who like Woods had played at Stanford and also like Woods had won the NCAA individual title, albeit 54 years earlier, published a letter of advice to Woods to remain in school. Tatum, a former USGA president who is now 95, may have been correct. The difference is that the choice was Woods’s, not the PGA Tour’s.

Tennis and golf are different than football, or so the argument goes, and less physically demanding. Correct, but so what? If anything, can’t one make the counter-argument that a player such as Fournette, who clearly has NFL talent and maturity, should spend one less physically taxing season playing for a scholarship and free room and board as opposed to millions of dollars?

Besides, what is the difference between Fournette and Jack Eichel? The latter was the No. 2 overall pick in last summer’s National Hockey League draft and earlier this week made his NHL debut for the Buffalo Sabres only months after completing his freshman year at Boston University. Eichel is 18 years old. Hockey is violent.

To be clear, and fair, the odds are that Fournette will still enjoy a lengthy and lucrative NFL career. While the average NFL career for a running back, the most physically punishing position in the sport, is just 3.1 years, that number more than doubles if we examine players selected in the first and second rounds. Between 2001 and 2010, the average career span of a running back selected in the first two rounds was 7.1 seasons, and that excludes the four players taken in 2010 (e.g., C.J. Spiller) who are in their sixth year.

Injuries happen. Any time. Anywhere. South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore tore multiple ligaments and dislocated his right knee as a junior and, though he was drafted (in the fourth round), never played a down in the NFL. On the other hand, Auburn running back Kenny Irons survived four SEC seasons, tore his ACL in the first preseason game of his rookie year with the Cincinnati Bengals, and never played another down in the NFL.

In other words, arguing for or against the three-year rule based on the potential and timing of injuries is beside the point. Besides, the odds are long on Fournette’s side that, no matter what level he were to play at next season, he will enjoy a long and fruitful career of working on Sundays.

The issue, then, is not about Fournette’s safety; it is about his liberty. As passionately as this writer loves college football and acknowledges that the quality of the game would be damaged by players departing early, isn’t it wrong to prevent someone from doing a job for which they have already demonstrated uncanny acumen?

The next time you hear a broadcaster or read a columnist celebrating a tennis or golf prodigy, or a hockey phenom, ask yourself how come these same people are so concerned about the welfare of a college football player they have likely never met. Is there a paternal attitude influencing their opinion, one whose roots they’d rather not explore?

Every Saturday from now until the end of this season Leonard Fournette is going to line up in front of 80- to 100,000 spectators, before a television audience at least five times that number. He will be asked to carry a football into a grinder of at least 2,500 pounds of malevolent humanity, at least 15 to 25 times per game.

That’s a lot of responsibility for one young man to bear. If LSU is comfortable with putting the ball into Fournette’s hands, why would anyone be concerned about putting Fournette’s future into his hands as well?