HONOLULU -- Colts head coach Tony Dungy stood before the elite of the AFC earlier this week and informed his squad of All-Stars of an alarming decision. A judge had just ruled in favor of Maurice Clarett, giving the Ohio State youngster and all others the right to enter the NFL Draft.
"That poor kid," one player immediately belted out.
|LaVar Arrington says, 'You have to learn what's going on physically and emotionally. The NFL is not for kids.'(Getty Images)|
This year's Pro Bowl is a bit different than in years past. Rather than the typical stress-free week where the NFL's crème de la crème can congregate together and talk about football on its highest levels, the week was marred. In fact, all week long, NFL players -- after forgetting about the nipple shot heard round the world -- reacted with outrage and couldn't let it go even days after the Clarett decision was rendered.
"I would hope whoever the first one to try it, the teams would send them a message that this is not what the NFL is about," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said regarding a boycott of drafting such a youngster. "I've never faulted a kid in college from coming out early when he has been eligible.
"You have to go to college for three years and get an understanding of what life is about. You have to be ready or you'll never get over the hump."
The most outspoken person during the week was Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington, who has talked about targeting any premature draftees in order to send a message.
"It gives people a false impression that they can be bigger than the league, bigger than the game," Arrington said. "This is some serious stuff here. There are some serious killers in this game, grown men who try to knock your head off every single play.
"They have grown-men bodies and speed you've never seen before. You have to learn what's going on physically and emotionally. The NFL is not for kids."
Arrington and Manning's sentiments were heard from corner to corner of both Pro Bowl locker rooms. The league's stars talked all week about cheapening the game and most actually took it personally. Their biggest concern isn't so much the college sophomore, but the fear of a world of LeBron Jameses trying to infiltrate the NFL.
"It's a slap in our face to have a high school kid come out and think he could step up to a league where 100 percent of the combatants are men," Miami LB Zach Thomas said. "This is a whole different story on this level. I'm really against this."
"Pay your dues like everyone else before you, and do the right thing," Arrington said. "All this is doing is taking our game and that one single person can devalue everything. That's fine though because at one point in time we'll have a chance to see what he's about out there anyway."
"This isn't basketball, where your goal is to come out and throw a ball through a hole," Ravens LB Ray Lewis said. "Every other sport is different from ours, because our sport revolves around such physical activity. You bring in a kid who is 18 years old, I don't think they're that grown.
"The body has to go through years of maturing against injury. You might catch a phenomenon coming out, but it'll hurt more than it helps. Maurice is a good friend of mine, but at the same time, the longevity of what they are trying to execute is impossible."
The wide-ranging ramifications of the Clarett decision for the league were cause for conversation at practice, at the pool, on the golf course, in between sips of Mai Tais. Each Pro Bowler has his own take on what could be a terrible tailspin for professional football.
"It's going to be a big mess, just like basketball," Chiefs fullback Tony Richardson said. "Kids will start making crazy decisions to chase the money instead of chasing their goals in a sport that they should be chasing.
"It's not good for our sport. I just hope that it doesn't send our sport in a negative direction, because it could bring a class of young, mentally immature kids into the league, and that won't be good."
"It hurts the entire fabric of our sport," Thomas said. "Now agents are going to start going after kids in high school. How many of these kids will be lured in by $1,000 bonus by some agent. They are too immature to deal with this right now."
Giants DE Michael Strahan also added his opinion: "The courts have done these kids a great injustice. I actually feel bad for these kids, because they are going to change their lives due to a false impression about something. I don't care how physically gifted a kid thinks he is, the mental and maturity aspect of the game will engulf you.
"The level of maturity needed to play in the NFL is incredible, and if they mess that up, it'll be too hard for them to recover."
Even some of the agents (who might stand to the gain the most from this decision) present at the Pro Bowl were disappointed by the decision. Ralph Cindrich asked at what point does he and his cohorts now have to start looking at talent? Early high school years?
"It's going to be a mess," Cindrich said.
"When you go to college and have two years away from home, they can mature a little bit," Jets center Kevin Mawae said. "It's not a game for a bunch of 18-year-old athletes to run around out here. This isn't AAA state championship, it's the real deal."
"You may be able to have someone come out with the physical ability to compete, but nobody will be able to handle the mental complexity of and the scrutiny of it," Manning said. "The difference between a college playbook and a pro playbook is astronomical. The difference between a high school playbook and the NFL? It's not even a conversation.
"It's disappointing. Someone will try to do it, and the chances of that kid succeeding are very slim."
Players also asked if there was something the NFL could eventually do to prevent their fears from coming true. Gene Upshaw, the NFLPA head, and league officials both said they would take steps to shut the window.
"I was surprised to see the ruling, and I thought we had something different from other leagues," Manning said. "I've never liked how the NBA and the major leagues set up their situations. Hopefully there is something that the players union and the league can still do."
Hopefully, because Hawaii isn't supposed to be this stressful.
Manning talks restart
Manning is the No. 1-rated unrestricted free agent on the open market, but the attention his status has garnered has been quiet due to the fact outsiders believe the Colts will slap him with the franchise tag in order to keep him.
It might not come to that as negotiations have finally begun again.
SportsLine.com has learned Manning's agent Tom Condon and the Colts' top man Bill Polian met this week in Hawaii face-to-face to discuss Manning's future. While nothing was ironed out and both sides appear to be setting the groundwork for what could be extremely interesting talks, the two sides will meet again in Indianapolis for the scouting combines.
If the team elects to tag him with the exclusive rights franchise tag, then his cap number and salary for the year will exceed $18 million. Ouch!
Manning was also the center of a wonderful rumor that made a fast run through the Pro Bowl hotel Tuesday. Word spread like a wild fire that Redskins owner Daniel Snyder told the All-Pro QB he would offer a stunning $40 million up front if he became a free agent next month.
"I've heard it a million times this week, and I have no idea where it started," Manning said in denial.
Obviously, the Redskins couldn't make such an offer as it would be tampering with another team's player. Still, Manning's Pro Bowl compatriots loved the gossip and ran with it over and over again.
Line of the week
"Good ol' Michael Strahan, how 'bout them Cowboys!" Wherever the Giants pass rusher went, his fellow Pro Bowl players constantly heckled him over his humorous Snickers commercial.
At one point on the golf course, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and couple of others rolled up and shouted it in the middle of Strahan's back swing on the tee box. Players yelled it at the pool, at practice, in the locker room and out at clubs when Strahan was not even present. Who has been the worst culprit during the week?
"Roy Williams," Strahan said. "He says it every two seconds. That's OK, I bought everyone drinks at the pool bar and made him pick it up."
That's good ol' Michael Strahan for ya.