What Is The NFL Three Year Rule? (Explained)

In 2003, football fans were suddenly discussing the three year rule. Most had never even heard of it before!

That year, one of the leading sports stories was that Michigan’s star running back, Maurice Clarett was suing the NFL to be allowed to play in the league.

The NFL refused to allow Clarett to enter the NFL’s Draft because he was not eligible under the league’s three-year rule. This article looks at the history of this rule, and the arguments for and against it.

What Happened Before Eligibility Rules?

The NFL dates back to the early 20th century. Back then, there were no rules about who was eligible to play in the league.

Anyone who was physically able to produce on the field was fair game. That included players in any year in college.

There are some people who believe that this should still be the case.

Players could and did jump from college into the pros and return back to college.

1925 – The Red Grange Rule (Four Years)

This all came to a halt in 1925. The biggest star in the sport was college superstar and three-time All American Red Grange, “The Galloping Ghost”.

He left college to sign with the Chicago Bears of the NFL after his third college season.

It’s almost impossible to overstate what a big star Grange was. He was a household name throughout the country, on equal footing with Babe Ruth.

Even almost eighty years later, ESPN named him as the greatest college player ever seen.

When he jumped to the NFL, he brought instant legitimacy to the league that had a somewhat seedy, second-class image.

At the same time, Grange’s defection created a huge media storm of criticism.

In response to this, the NFL instituted the “Red Grange Rule”. This mandated that a player could only go to the NFL after a full four years of college, or after four years had elapsed since his graduation from high school.

This rule stayed in effect until 1990.

In the meantime, the draft was introduced to the NFL. You can read more in our history of the NFL draft.

1990 – The Three-Year Rule

In 1990 the NFL relaxed the prior rule. The new rule became known as the three-year rule.

Players who want to be eligible for the NFL Draft now only had to play college for three years or wait until they reached the age they would have been after having played three years of college football.

This is the rule that’s in effect now.

The current three-year rule has been agreed upon by both NFL management and the NFL players.

It’s a result of a collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA. The latter is the union for NFL players.

The rule is contained within Article XII of the NFL Bylaws, entitled “Eligibility of Players”

Why This Eligibility Rule Is A Surprise To Other Sports Fans

We decided to write this article because the three year rule seems strange to other sports fans.

There is no such rule in the top professional soccer or rugby competitions.

Players can go straight from high school into pro soccer or rugby. Most soccer players will get their first professional contract after graduating high school.

In historic times, schoolboys would go straight into a professional soccer club at fifteen without completing their schooling. The only reason that has changed is that it is no longer socially acceptable for clubs to hinder education.

Because of the physical demands of rugby, it’s much rarer for a rugby player to go straight from school into a professional contract. However, there are usually one or two per year across the United Kingdom.

Most aspiring rugby players would expect a professional contract when they finish college. If three years had elapsed and they haven’t been picked up (i.e. playing semi-pro or amateur), they are probably not going to make it.

So, soccer and rugby fans are understandably wondering why both the NFL franchises and the players would want this rule in place. Let’s take a look at the arguments for and against.

Arguments In Support Of The Rule

The arguments in support of the three year rule largely boil down to:

  • Public perception
  • Player safety
  • Educational welfare
  • Suits most players
  • Franchise liability

Let’s get into these in turn.

Public Perception

The rule was instituted to insulate the league from a storm of angry criticism from college football fans, and from the colleges themselves. This is still an issue.

When you rank the most popular sports in the United States, NFL football is number one, Division One college football is a close second, and none of the other sports even come close. In many parts of the country, college football is still more popular than professional football.

There is a general belief among sports fans that when professional basketball eliminated its version of the three-year rule, it destroyed the college basketball game, which was once hugely popular.

Any action by the NFL that was seen as damaging to the college game would likely create a huge popular backlash against the NFL.

This should make things clearer for rugby fans. College rugby is a bit obscure. In contrast, college football is massive.

Physical Safety

While a male is a legal adult at 18, they aren’t done physically developing.

The years between 18 and 22 see substantial improvements in muscle strength and growth, particularly in athletes who spend time in the weight room, as football players do.

More and denser muscle doesn’t just mean more strength; it also means the ability to absorb more punishment without taking permanent damage

With the advent of advanced nutrition and training techniques, the modern NFL player is a fearsome specimen.

The average lineman, who in the 1970s weighed 250 pounds, now weighs over 300 pounds of mostly muscle. (Check out our article on average lineman weights if you want more details).

They can explode and move over short distances at world-class speeds.

The vast majority of high school graduates, even ones with professional-level skills, couldn’t stand repeated hits from these men.

Players in other major league sports are allowed to go to the professional leagues right out of high school. However, the physical risk of football is not like basketball or baseball.

If an 18-year-old goes to the NFL when he isn’t ready, he doesn’t just risk losing his chance at a free college degree or a pro career, he risks serious, life-changing, crippling injury.

Personal testimony from a former lineman

Michael Oriard, Ph.D., is an Associate Dean of Liberal Arts at the Liberal Arts College of Oregon State University.

He is also a former lineman for Division One Notre Dame University and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.

He discusses the shocking transition from college football to the professional ranks in several of his books. His history of big-time college football from the 1960s is a fascinating read (affiliate link).

He described it as going from a locker room of swaggering, strong boys who were playing a game to a world of very hard, very serious, grim men who were doing a dangerous job. The pros were fighting for their professional lives every single day.

He said the bodies of the pro players even looked different, with bigger, harder, denser muscles than any college kid had.

Physical Safety is the major reason that the NFLPA gives for supporting the three-year rule.

Educational Welfare

Another argument is based on the fact that the overwhelming majority of even Division One college players will never go to the NFL.  

So, the NFL’s rule makes sure that they get closer to the degree that will enable them to go places in life that they couldn’t without it.

Even if they do make the big league, the average NFL career is less than two years. So most of the people who go to the NFL need to find another career when it’s over.

They are helped with the academic grounding of three to four years in college.

Suits Most Players

It has been argued that the NFL players probably like the fact that the three-year rule reduces the number of competitors for positions on a team.

While there may be something to that, it probably isn’t that much of a factor.

Even people who aren’t wholly in favor of the rule don’t claim that many college players would be capable of making the jump before the third year.

Veteran NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz is in favor of making exceptions. But Schwartz says that he only ever saw two college players capable of being the exception!

So what’s the point of changing the rule for so very few?

Franchise liability

gavel and pen on a document titled lawsuit

The NFL physically screens everyone who enters the draft.

If they changed the rule and let in an 18-year-old who got his neck broken early on, they would have huge negligence liability in court.

Arguments Against The Rule

The arguments against the three year rule largely boil down to:

  • Antitrust
  • Right to work

Let’s get into these in turn.


book titled antitrust law

In the case of Clarett v. National Football League, Maurice Clarett charged that the three-year rule violated United States antitrust law because it violated his rights to work.

Ultimately, the courts disagreed. They based their decision on the fact that a known exemption to antitrust laws is labor rules that are a result of collective bargaining.

That is exactly what the three-year rule is.

Right to work

The other argument is that it should not be legal to tell an adult 18-year-old man that he is not allowed to work.

Simply put, the player and his parents are in a better position to judge whether he is ready or not than some arbitrary rule.

If a star player who has the capability to play in the NFL stays in college and gets a career-ending injury there, he may be costing himself the millions of dollars he could have made in the NFL.

The Three Year Rule is Probably Here To Stay

Rules restricting the age for the entry of players into the NFL have been around for close to one hundred years at this point.

The Supreme Court has found these kinds of rules to be fully legal, both the players and management are in favor of it, and the public likes their college football just like it is.

We conclude that it won’t be changed anytime soon!