Friday, February 6, 2004

Judge overturns rule limiting NFL eligibility

League expected to appeal; RB's next move uncertain

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer
with The Associated Press

Maurice Clarett
The decision Thursday by a New York federal judge that made Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett eligible for the NFL draft could change the face of football.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin declared that an NFL rule barring teenagers' eligibility violates antitrust law and "must be sacked." Unless overturned on appeal, the ruling means high school players and college underclassmen will make the jump to the pros just like their counterparts in the NBA.

"Someday, a team's going to waste a pick on a 10-year-old," NFL draft guru Jerry Jones said.

Scheindlin said legal issues are so clearly in Clarett's favor a trial is unnecessary. The NFL said it will appeal, and it will probably try to block the ruling before the April draft.

Clarett sued the league last year to challenge its 1990 rule that a player must be out of high school three years to enter the draft.

"I was pleased that the rule was brought down," Clarett said at a news conference in New York. "It gives kids an opportunity to choose."

Clarett declined to say whether he'll enter the April draft, after his lawyers advised him that Ohio State has warned even a declaration to join the NFL would rule out any chance of returning to college ball.

Jeff Pash, an NFL executive vice president and chief counsel, said the ruling left him "really surprised" but confident on appeal because its findings contradicted those of past court rulings.

Dozens of basketball players, including Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, have gone to the NBA straight after high school in recent years. The question now is how this ruling will reshape the football landscape.

"I don't think it's the end of college football as we know it," Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger said. "The ramifications are far greater for the NFL than for college football.

"(Early entry) hasn't changed college basketball. Guys may leave early, but I'll bet the Cincinnati-Xavier game the other night was still sold out and had people excited."

Pash said the ruling would seemingly allow other underclassmen to enter this year's draft. Jones said the most likely candidate would be Southern California star receiver Mike Williams.

Yet the true test will come in coming seasons when younger and younger players test the waters. Many NFL players and executives have said high school players wouldn't be physically mature enough to make the jump.

"Your body's not ready. You might not make it out of the first game," 192-pound Bengals receiver Chad Johnson, who weighed 160 after high school, told the Enquirer this fall. "It's going to be a big jump. This is not the NBA."

Said Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb: "You can't just come out of high school and play with grown men."

Clarett, a 20-year-old sophomore, played just one season at Ohio State, leading the Buckeyes to the 2002 national championship. He was barred from playing in the 2003 season for accepting improper benefits, and then lying to investigators about it.

Ohio State would have to petition the NCAA to allow Clarett to return for the 2004 season, and it is unclear whether it would succeed.

Clarett would be prevented from entering the NFL draft until 2005 under current rules. His lawyers had called the rule arbitrary and anticompetitive, arguing it robbed players like Clarett of an opportunity to enter the multimillion-dollar marketplace.

Scheindlin wrote that the NFL rule "is precisely the sort of conduct that the antitrust laws were designed to prevent."

"One can scarcely think of a more blatantly anticompetitive policy than one that excludes certain competitors from the market altogether," she wrote.

Scheindlin noted courts had already eliminated similar age-based rules violating antitrust laws in professional basketball and hockey. She said the NFL had kept one in effect since Illinois' star running back, Harold "Red" Grange, left school in 1925 to join the Chicago Bears for $50,000.

The league argued that Clarett should not be eligible for the draft because its rule resulted from a 1993 collective bargaining agreement with the players and is immune from antitrust scrutiny.

"We believe today's ruling is inconsistent in numerous respects with well-established labor and antitrust law," the league said.

No other player has challenged the eligibility rule. Clarett's name will be linked in history with the likes of Spencer Haywood, whose lawsuit paved the way for underclassmen to play in the NBA.

"I was in Iraq this summer for eight days with some retired NBA players ... and I saw 18-year-olds fighting for our country," Haywood said. "I'd love somebody to explain to me how we can send an 18-year-old to war, but we can't to the NFL."

The NFL stands by its stance that its rule has helped both players and teams in the long run.

"Our system is working," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said last week. "It is easy to identify players who were helped by staying in school and were developing their skills."

Enquirer reporter Mark Curnutte contributed.

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