The NFL in 1990 implemented a rule to protect student-athletes who have remained in school to complete their school work.
The “May 16 Rule” is an NFL effort to make sure that drafted rookies who have yet to graduate can finish their college educations without pressure to drop out to join their new NFL club.
The NFL tracks the end of the school year for all FCS schools. Currently, rookies from only six universities are affected by this rule. Washington, Northwestern, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA have exams after June 1.
Before 1990, NFL rookies would report to minicamps and then stay for the duration of the team’s offseason program.
Since clubs required all drafted players to participate, some players would drop out of school to attend. In some instances, clubs would even prohibit — or would strongly discourage — a player from returning to his college for his graduation ceremony.
Graduation rates were very important to colleges then, as they are now. When drafted players dropped out without graduating, it created an issue for the colleges. The American Football Coaches Association — an association of football coaches and staff on all levels — reacted by locking pro scouts off of college campuses.
Throughout the 1990s, the NFL and AFCA continued to adjust the policy to balance the legitimate need of clubs to begin developing their rookies, while maintaining cordial and cooperative relationship with colleges.
If dropouts were allowed to report to their clubs early, the student-athletes who remain in school would be put in a competitive disadvantage. They could face pressure from clubs and their fans to participate in offseason activities. Initially the NFL decided to make either June 1 or the date of a player’s final exams the date when a rookie could report to his club.
By 1999, the AFCA agreed to change the June 1 date to May 16. This date was selected to align the number of colleges with final exams dates that concluded on or after May 16, but before June 1.
Now, the AFCA agrees to let the NFL select a date “on or about May 16” to begin its rookie football development program (in 2017, the date was May 15).
Each year, NFL Player Personnel asks the AFCA to approve a date that will allow for the CBA-negotiated, seven-week rookie football development program. The AFCA only asks in return that players be permitted to return to school to “walk” at graduation.
The following rule applies to rookie players who were eligible for the Principal Draft:
(i) Players who attend schools with final examinations that conclude prior to May 16* may fully participate in any activities (i.e., tryout, physical examination, three-day post-Draft rookie minicamp, or RFDP) at a club’s facility beginning May 15.
(ii) Players who attend schools with final examinations that conclude after May 16* may not participate in any activities other than the three-day post-Draft rookie minicamp until after the player’s final day of examinations.
(iii) Players who have withdrawn from school may not attend any club activity (other than the three-day post-Draft Rookie minicamp) or be visited at his campus or residence, or any other location, by any club personnel or club representative if final examinations have yet to conclude at the school. This includes drafted players, any undrafted players that have signed as free agents, and any undrafted players that have not signed.
* May 16 or a date close to that agreed upon with the AFCA. In 2017, that date was May 15.