January 1,2013; Tampa, FL, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (7) rushes as Michigan Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner (12) throws the ball during the second half of the 2013 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. South Carolina won 33-28. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Nerlens Noel, Marcus Lattimore & Jadeveon Clowney: The Pro Age Limit Debate

Kentucky basketball center Nerlens Noel suffered an injury on Tuesday night, revealed to be an ACL tear on Wednesday. Noel likely would have been a lottery pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, thus the prospect of a debilitating injury sparks the debate over professional age limits anew.

The NBA instituted a 19-year age limit after the 2005 draft, effectively ending the high school-to-pros leap that was so en vogue for a decade. Contention over the rule remains heated from both sides: critics argue it either violates antitrust laws, or doesn’t go far enough. The only agreement reached from two polar opposite positions is that the rule is broken.

The NFL-instituted age limit, which mandates that a draftee must be at least three years removed from high school, has largely evaded similar scrutiny. At least, until recently.

South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore suffered not one, but two serious injuries while plying his trade for the Gamecocks. The second sparked the debate for college football.

Charlotte Observer columnist Tom Sorensen was prescient in penning this column, published the same day as Noel’s injury, suggesting likely top five 2014 NFL draftee Jadeveon Clowney should spend this coming fall training instead of pursuing the Heisman Trophy and an SEC championship.

Clowney’s professional potential was evident before he ever played a down for the Gamecocks, and he’s only solidified his value in the two years since. Likewise, teammate Lattimore showed skill and natural ability as a freshman that suggested he could make the leap into the 2011 draft.

Lattimore’s stock now is significantly lower than had he been able to test the waters in 2011. Clowney could be available and this April’s draft, and likely go in the first few picks, but should a similar fate befall him as Lattimore and Noel, how does that impact his future?

Logic behind the NFL’s age limit — and it bears reiterating while it benefits the NCAA, both age limits are in fact instituted by the professional leagues — is that 18, 19, even 20-year-olds are not physically prepared for the rigors of the league. While freshmen enter the college game better prepared to contribute immediately than ever before, there’s general truth to the idea.

Teenagers are often still developing. Pairing them against men 10 years their elder, whose job for the past seven years is achieving peak physical conditioning, could be a recipe for disaster.

Now, the safety issue may or may not be lip service; players developed at the college level bolster the NFL’s on-field product.

February 12, 2013; Gainesville, FL, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Nerlens Noel (3) reacts on the ground after hurting his knee against the Florida Gators during the second half at the Stephen C. O

The NBA’s age limit is predicated on a slightly different concept, albeit one in the same conversation. The influx of unprepared, high potential teenagers like Jonathan Bender, Gerald Green, Desagana Diop, Kwame Brown and others entering the pros only to flame out contributed to a decline in the NBA’s quality from the post-Michael Jordan era until recent years — years since the age limit was instituted.

Make no mistake, the age limit was for the NBA’s own benefit and not throwing a bone to college basketball. Any benefit the college game may have garnered is purely a byproduct.

And that’s ultimately what it comes down to for both the NBA and NFL. Each league is going to do what is in its own best interests. Cases like Lattimore and Noel, the best interest of the league may not overlap with best interest of the athlete. In some cases, it does.

I heard about 30 seconds of Colin Cowherd’s radio show, in which the boisterous ESPN host shouted about Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other titans of modern industry eschewing college. Cowherd might be a bad example to present, as speaking in far-fetched analogies is his norm, but there is a prevailing argument in his sentiment often echoed: others with transcendent talents can forge their own paths.

These examples don’t necessarily fit, as neither Gates nor Zuckerberg were beholden to a particularly entity for their trade. Check your average job board, and no shortage of companies explicitly state a college degree is required.

Now, would a software company make an exception for the next Bill Gates without meeting such minimum requirements? Perhaps after evaluating his or her skill set, which might be the ultimate answer: case-by-case evaluation vs. a one-sized fits all policy.

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