Why NFL early-entry restrictions aren't fair to LSU's Leonard Fournette

Herbstreit: Fournette would never take year off at LSU (1:34)

Kirk Herbstreit says Leonard Fournette loves playing at LSU and is not concerned about saving himself for the NFL draft two years from now. (1:34)

The controversial question of whether LSU sophomore running back sensation Leonard Fournette should sit out the 2016 college season to avoid getting hurt until he's eligible for the 2017 NFL draft is a diversion from the really annoying, more pertinent question that should be getting asked instead: Why do the NFL and the NFL Players Association persist in barring players from leaving college for the pros when they want?

"There should be some process in place to allow it," said former Oklahoma running back Marcus Dupree, who from 1982-83 occupied a place in college football similar to Fournette's current situation. Noting that baseball allows high school players to turn pro and the NBA allows players who don't hire agents to return to college if they don't like their draft projection, Dupree said, "Football should have something, too. Fournette is ready for the NFL now. People said I could've gone early too."

Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis -- echoing what Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson said about himself earlier this week -- said, "Running back is one of the few positions where I could see a player going straight from high school to the NFL. I think I could've probably done it myself, too, though probably as just a fullback. I was 240 pounds coming out of high school. I already had the size and speed to do it."

Fournette has to wait. He's rushed for 631 yards in three games this year but is hemmed in by a paternalistic rule that relies on hoary precedent based on the NFL and college sports' shared business interest in maintaining the lucrative status quo of using universities as a farm system. It treats athletes and their advisors as if they don't have the good sense to make decisions for themselves.

Just 16 games into his college career, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Fournette has been so staggeringly good he's prompted comparisons to Herschel Walker and Dupree, Earl Campbell and Bo Jackson -- some of the most freakishly great backs who have ever played. The hyperbole around Fournette only skyrocketed more when Walker came out and said Fournette "is better than I was" and longtime NFL personnel man Gil Brandt joined the chorus of folks saying Fournette is ready for the NFL right now.

So what's keeping a player like Fournette from jumping to the next level? The NFL and the union agreed in collective bargaining to prevent players from applying for the NFL draft until they're three years removed from high school, and a U.S. district court of appeals upheld the restriction when Ohio State's Maurice Clarett and USC's Mike Williams challenged it 10 years ago. The ruling favored the NFL not because the court bought the league's argument that younger players are physically and mentally unable to handle the rigors of the pro game, but because the court viewed collective bargaining -- no matter how ineffectually one side may be representing its constituency -- as sacrosanct.

So far, the 20-year-old Fournette has done nothing to suggest he has any of Clarett's activist bent in him, Curt Flood's willingness to swim against the tide of precedent and carry the fight for other players on issues like freedom of movement, or Ed O'Bannon's will to challenge the exploitation of athletes' likenesses without compensation. And granted, it's a lot to ask.

With the play-or-sit-out question raging on in recent weeks, Fournette tweeted something that reads like a double entendre, though he didn't mean it that way:

Former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, the flesh-and-blood cautionary tale that Fournette is most often warned about, says he has "no regrets" about his own decision to stay in school even though he suffered severe knee injuries in back-to-back seasons that negatively impacted his attempt to have an NFL career. After the San Francisco 49ers drafted him, he tried but failed to make the team, later saying, "But it was hell. Every day."

But Lattimore says the decision to stay or go, play or sit out, should be Fournette's alone.

"In my opinion, he should be as educated and informed about his decision as possible -- and then whichever way he goes should be up to him," Lattimore said. "I had same kind of talk after my freshman year. And after my sophomore year. Everybody is different. Everyone's situation is different. I spoke to a lot of advisors and other players about sitting out. Obviously, if he was to come out this year, he would be a top 10 pick. Playing another year, he could get hurt doing anything. But me, I knew I couldn't sit out.

"I've been playing the game of football since I was 7 years old. And there was nothing that would make me want to sit out a whole year."

Even if Fournette plays and survives next season at LSU intact, it's hard to see him pushing his draft value any higher than it is now.

What about the NFL's long-posited argument that the mental and physical grind of pro ball is too much for young players to handle? Bettis isn't buying it.

"That's true at some positions," Bettis allows, "but running back is one of the few where you could probably make the jump to the NFL early and have success. I was barely 21 when I got drafted. I don't think being 19 is that big a difference. ... The biggest leap is blocking in blitz packages and pass protection. Because if you can't do that in the NFL, you have the ability to get your quarterback really hurt. But once you had that part of it, you could have success."

Both Lattimore and Dupree acknowledge the outside pressure and competing emotions Fournette must be feeling to rule out sitting out 2016 and not buck the draft-entry rules.

LSU is ranked No. 8 and its rabid fans want him to stay and play. He's the early Heisman Trophy front-runner. Tigers head coach Les Miles thought Fournette was enough of a football prodigy to offer him a scholarship as a high school freshman, and yet Miles is now doing what the college coaches of talents like Fournette (or Jadeveon Clowney and others before them) usually do when asked about their stars leaving early: Miles scoffed at the notion his bell-cow player should do anything but keep playing for room and board and tuition.

"I can't imagine it that Leonard would be sitting anywhere inactive for a [season]," Miles said Wednesday. "People are just stirring the pot."

Lattimore understands it all.

"You're just on a team and you just want to play the game of football," he said. "You see everyone with your '21' jersey on or whatever, but you don't really think about it until someone brings it to your attention. Obviously, the university did use me to make money. They used my 'brand.'... But I knew that. I was informed about that. That's why I can full-heartedly say I don't regret any decision I made."

Dupree, who came from a poor background in Philadelphia, Mississippi, was accused of accepting under-the-table gifts to play college football. But he's denied that (including a claim in the 2010 ESPN 30 for 30 film "The Best That Never Was" that his mom was given a double-wide trailer home).

He says players should be free to choose to get paid aboveboard.

"From my very first game at Oklahoma, the first thing my mother saw was all the people holding up No. 1 fingers and the 'Run, Marcus, Run' signs and the school making money off selling my jersey," Dupree said.

Dupree abruptly left Oklahoma in 1983 after suffering a concussion against Texas during his sophomore year, and he never came back. For a few days, even the FBI was looking for him. He later intended to play for Southern Mississippi but left there, too, when told he'd have to wait two years to enter the NFL draft. In 1984, he took an option that doesn't exist for today's players and signed with the fledging USFL, where injuries hampered him for two seasons. He was out of football until he finally had a short stay with the Los Angeles Rams for parts of the 1990 and '91 seasons, notching only 68 carries for 251 yards.

Dupree later did a bit of scouting for the Washington Redskins, drove a truck, started his own business and now does speaking engagements. At 51, he admits he looks back with regret at the Catch-22 he felt caught up in. He says he never quite got to enjoy the full college football experience, and the predictions about his potential greatness and the riches he'd enjoy in the NFL never panned out, either.

"Coaches are making millions of dollars, schools are making millions. Why not something for college players when they're done -- an annuity or something?" Dupree asked.

Lattimore is now back at South Carolina finishing his degree in public health and working for the university as an ambassador. He says he still works out every day and adds that his knees are almost feeling good enough to accept one of the many offers he has to return to football -- albeit only for his friends' campus flag football teams.

Once again, he'd be back to playing for free.

"They've gotta give me a couple more months [of workouts]" Lattimore said, laughing. "Then I'll probably play defense. I always wanted to play safety."

Lattimore is just 23, but he has let his NFL dream go.

Asked if he had any further advice for Fournette, he said just this: "He should follow his heart. Because you never know."