A controversial rule has been preventing rookies across the NFL from joining their respective teams during OTAs. The rule forbids NFL players whose colleges have not had graduation from participating in any organized practices with the team until the college semester ends. Whether that involves graduating, or simply waiting around until your college has held graduation, the rule is the same for all rookies, without exception. For example, Christian McCaffrey dropped out of Stanford to enter the NFL Draft; so while he’s no longer taking classes, he’s not allowed to participate in Panthers practices until Stanford graduation (June 17). For No. 9 overall pick, John Ross, not being allowed to join his teammates was frustrating, but he used the free time to earn his degree, and Ross graduated last Saturday.
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“It definitely was hard, but knowing the circumstances it kind of made it easier knowing the fact I was chasing after my degree and I ended up getting my degree,” Ross told the Cincinnati media at his first minicamp practice on Tuesday. “It wasn’t that hard, but it was tough not being around the team and not being able to learn the new material and not being around the coaches.”
Critics of the rule argue it is unfair to players who want to focus on football to have to wait until college is over to start practicing. However, the rule is meant to avoid putting pressure on players like Ross who value their education.
Some NFL players (like McCaffrey and to an extent Bengals guard Alex Redmond) have expressed displeasure with the forced waiting period, but Ross understands and accepts the system. Additionally, Ross is currently recovering from labrum surgery and isn’t fully cleared to practice. So while he didn’t miss much (as far as what he can do) it was still a disadvantage for him to be away from his teammates and fellow rookies just weeks after getting drafted into the NFL.
"There's a process to all of it," Ross said. "All I know is that we have a plan and I'm just going to follow it."
However, with all of the anticipation, training, and build up that has gone into his career, it is understandable why the seemingly arbitrary roadblocks can be frustrating.
“There were times like weekends for me and Memorial Day that was basically a work day that I had off with no class,” Ross said. “I worked out and went home and was like, ‘What’s next?’ You look at the playbook all day and study and there was nothing else you want to do than be around football, but you can’t be around your team. I was still working out at my college, but those guys were busy doing team stuff and I can’t join them. It was definitely frustrating.”
As tough as the waiting process can be, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis supports the rule. It seems like the right perspective for a coach, preferring his players are not under pressure when making pivotal decisions on their football careers that could come back to bite them in the long-run. Though, it also prevents them from team bonding and getting caught up to speed as quickly as other rookies. Redmond stated as much just a few weeks ago.
“I was behind when I came in last year,” Redmond told My Dayton Daily News. “It was a pain in the ass not being able to be here, but these guys really help you catch up. They make you catch up.”
However, players like McCaffrey have gone on record criticizing the rule. For McCaffrey, he already dropped out of school months ago and is still not allowed to hit the practice field. And for him, the situation is even worse as Stanford doesn’t have graduation until after OTAs and minicamp end. At least Ross was able to make it back to Cincinnati for minicamp after missing OTAs.
Ross receiving his degree in American Ethnic Studies caps off a long academic journey for the Bengals receiver. It not only allows him to ensure his academic pursuits in college did not go to waste, but he also became the first member of his family to receive a college degree. Football careers do not last forever, but his degree certainly will.
"It was probably bigger than getting drafted in my opinion, just because I feel like it's something that can't be taken away from you. It was something for my family," Ross said, via ESPN. "I've been playing football all my life and you never know what can happen with that, but with school it's more of an effort thing. It's something that's easier to come by than anything, but it's also not easy if that makes any sense."