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Clarett Lines Up Against NFL

Court Case Could Change How Things Are Run Between Pros, Colleges

By Charles Lane

Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, January 23, 2004; Page D01


For the NFL and its fans, the Super Bowl is the ultimate day of reckoning. But amid the pregame hype this year, there is an undertone of tension over an off-the-field battle that is also projected to come to a head soon.

A federal district judge in Manhattan is expected to rule by early February in what could be the most important legal case in recent professional football history -- a case with the potential to alter the way both the professional and college games have done business for more than three-quarters of a century.

Running back Maurice Clarett of Ohio State, suspended last year for alleged NCAA rules violations and lying to investigators after scoring 18 touchdowns and leading the Buckeyes to a national championship, is pursuing the option of going pro. But he's blocked by an NFL rule that says players can't enter the draft until three seasons after their high school class's graduation. Clarett, 20, would not be eligible for the draft until 2005.

So Clarett is suing the NFL, claiming that the rule violates federal antitrust law.

The debate over Clarett's case is largely about the costs and benefits, moral and economic, of letting non-seniors -- or conceivably even a gridiron version of LeBron James, basketball's high-school sensation now in his first year in the NBA -- move directly into the pro football ranks.

"If the ruling goes against us, the group hurt least will be the NFL," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. "On the other hand, many young men will chase an unrealistic dream and give up their best chance at a college education and the opportunity to develop their skills. College football as a sport, and all the other college sports that depend on it for revenue, will also be hurt."

Clarett's lawyer, Alan C. Milstein, argues in his court filings that Clarett has a right to be assessed as an individual and that the true purpose of the NFL rule is to "perpetuate the free farm system known as the NCAA," where the costs of player maturation -- and player injuries -- are shouldered by colleges and players.

But as a legal matter, the case before U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin will hinge on lesser-known considerations -- specifically, whether, in the eyes of the law, the NFL's rule is a product of a collective bargaining process between players and owners that is even more important than Clarett's right to pursue his fortune in a free market.

The NFL says the case is controlled by a 1996 Supreme Court ruling that said antitrust law did not bar the Washington Redskins and other teams from imposing a $1,000 per week salary on non-roster practice players, after contract talks between the NFL and the NFL Players' Association broke down.

In that case, Brown v. Pro Football, Inc., the court ruled 8-1 that the salary imposition was a tactic in a collective bargaining process, and thus permissible because courts have recognized that antitrust law cannot necessarily be applied to labor-management relations, lest the fight against monopoly thwart labor law's goal of promoting negotiation.

Thus, the NFL argues that its rule is something that labor and management have agreed on for the benefit of pro football -- and, as such, beyond the reach of antitrust law. Milstein counters that the rule was never specifically bargained over by the owners and the players' union. It is, he says, a cozy, anti-competitive arrangement between the NFL, the NCAA and the NFL Players Association of the kind antitrust law was designed to break up.

He points out that Clarett, at 6 feet and 230 pounds, is already bigger than some successful NFL players.

Certainly the origins of the NFL's rule lie in the early league's desire to avoid tension with the college game. It was adopted after Illinois's star running back, Harold "Red" Grange, stunned the sports world by leaving school at the end of the 1925 college season and joining the Chicago Bears of the five-year-old NFL for a reported $50,000.

At the time, the college game reigned supreme, and pro owners feared taking it on. "The NFL felt pressured to do something, or else it would take a hit it could less afford than the colleges could," said John M. Carroll, a professor of history at Lamar University and author of "Red Grange and the Rise of Modern Football."

"The Grange Rule," as it was originally known, has since been modified, most significantly in 1990, when the four-year limit was replaced by a three-year one. But its declared purpose remains the same: to prevent youngsters driven by often false hopes of quick riches from entering the pros before they are mentally and physically mature enough to survive in a violent professional sport.

Grange himself suffered a crippling knee injury in 1927. He sat out the 1928 season, then played four more years, but was never the same.

Milstein argues that the labor exemption as defined in the Brown case does not apply to Clarett's claim because the NFL's rule, unlike the salary imposition at issue in the Brown case, was never included in the collective bargaining agreements between the NFL and the NFLPA, or even discussed in detail during negotiations.

"Another peculiar thing about the rule is, what is the rule, what does it say, and where is it?" Milstein said in an interview, noting that at times the NFL or its spokesmen have said that the rule bars players from joining the draft until three NFL seasons have elapsed since their high school graduations, and at other times they have said it applies to three college seasons.

The league is considering whether to allow Pittsburgh all-American wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting this season as a sophomore, to become eligible for the NFL draft in April. Fitzgerald contends that because he attended prep school for a year after he would have graduated from a high school that he has fulfilled the three-year rule.

In its memo to Scheindlin, the NFL says the rule was implicitly bargained when the players' union agreed generally not to sue the league over any of its by-laws. "Even if the eligibility rule had not been the subject of an agreement with the NFLPA," the NFL's lawyer, Gregg H. Levy, wrote, "it would still be exempt from antitrust challenge because it was implemented in the context of a collective bargaining relationship."

Levy also argued that Clarett lacks legal standing to bring the case because he cannot show that the eligibility rule has depressed overall player pay. In fact, Levy noted, the NFL is paying players over 99 percent of the maximum allowed under the salary cap. But Milstein responds that the rule effectively forces a certain number of players to play in college "for nothing," when they could compete, and earn big dollars, in the pros.

Milstein's task is complicated by the fact that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, which would hear any appeal of Scheindlin's ruling, barred an antitrust challenge by Philadelphia 76ers first-round draft pick Leon Wood against the NBA's salary cap in 1997. The 2nd Circuit said the suit was covered by the labor exemption, even though Wood himself was not part of the union when the cap was negotiated. Unlike Wood, however, Clarett has not been drafted -- or even declared eligible for the draft -- so Milstein argues that he is in a fundamentally different position than Wood was.

Clarett, who was suspended after Ohio State charged him with accepting money and free cell phone service from supporters, and allegedly lying about it to the school's investigators, needs a ruling soon so that his eligibility for the April draft will be established in time for the annual mid-February NFL workout for would-be draftees.

At present, each side has told the court that it is entitled by law to a victory without the need for a jury trial. Scheindlin can rule in favor of either side, or decide that there are factual issues that require a trial.

If Scheindlin rules in Clarett's favor, the NFL would presumably appeal and seek a stay of her order -- which, if granted, could leave Clarett still unable to go pro.

Any appeals would be heard by the 2nd Circuit, and, if it comes to that, the Supreme Court.

Perhaps because of such uncertainties, a lawyer for Clarett in Ohio recently told the press that he is considering returning to Ohio State football. But Milstein said in an interview Tuesday that Clarett, while "keeping his options open," remains "absolutely committed" to the lawsuit.

Even if Clarett wins his case, it is unclear whether the abandonment of the three-year rule would change football as much as the free market in youthful talent has transformed pro and college basketball. There are many more players on a pro football team than there are on a pro basketball team, so the impact of any single new player is unlikely to determine a team's fortunes. The potential damage to the NCAA is significant, but could be mitigated if the league were to relax its rule that eliminates the college eligibility of any player who takes certain steps toward turning pro, such as hiring an agent.

The NCAA could permit players to test the waters in the NFL draft, then return to college play if the NFL turns out not to be interested.

"I think you could sit down and write out a list of 10 to 12 deep effects it might have," said Grant Taeff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, a professional organization of college coaches that strongly supports the rule. "We live in a society where youngsters aspire to the NFL and very few get there."

Still, he added, "it's not like Chicken Little -- 'The sky is falling.' Everyone would adjust and go on."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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Originally posted by Cskin

....and he'll be exposed as a fraud/bust compliments of running to high, being injury prone and soft, a mental midget and blockhead, and the owner of questionable speed.

LOL, I'll give you injury prone, but questionable speed? The guy is 230 and ran by DB's during the 2002 season. Also, Mo is no dummy, he wants to back to school. Obviously his money-hungery lawyer is going to say Mo is keeping his options open in order to keep the case going. He made a mistake and payed for it by not being able to do what he loved for a year(an unprecedented punishment). But you cannot question the guy is a phenom, If you have seen every single one of his games please feel free to retort. Or are you just going by what you see in highlights?

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That's all a bunch of garbage, just insurance in case he doesn't get to go into the draft. You really think that he won't change his mind if he is declared elligible? He blew off one season of football as OSU without even having a chance at the pros, and now, if he gets money waived in his face, he won't do it again?

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Originally posted by JoeSkins

That's all a bunch of garbage, just insurance in case he doesn't get to go into the draft. You really think that he won't change his mind if he is declared elligible? He blew off one season of football as OSU without even having a chance at the pros, and now, if he gets money waived in his face, he won't do it again?

I think Tressel told him one or the other, and they are working to keep him at OSU. He knows sitting out a year hurt him bigtime and wants to make it up.

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Originally posted by JoeSkins

That's all a bunch of garbage, just insurance in case he doesn't get to go into the draft. You really think that he won't change his mind if he is declared elligible? He blew off one season of football as OSU without even having a chance at the pros, and now, if he gets money waived in his face, he won't do it again?

Blew off? He was suspended. And anyone with a brainstem knows that no judge in his right mind would let a kid, that's right kid play in the NFL. We can rule out that he will win the case.

What do you expect an 18 year old kid to do in his shoes.

Say "I'm sorry Mr. NFL Owner, I don't want your money, i'd rather take a beating every week for free"

You're trying to make him sound like a bad person for wanting to get paid.

You are some judgemental, cynical people in this thread.

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He has a right to earn a living.

The NFL cannot stop him. Fine if he is not good enough. But if he is and they dont allow him to try then he has a nice case aginst the NFL.

problem really is he will never see the end of the case before he is eligible for the draft in 2005 anyway.

lets be honest here in this day and age college can be a complete waste of time and money. The risk of injury is great. He would not have ANY benefits if he were hurt.....

but the University profits in the millions off of guys just like him.

Keep on perpetratin' NCAA see where it gets you....

All this crapola about getting a college edumacation is just downright disingenuous..... ANYONE can go to college....

Gee how much easier it might be if the young man got paid and could afford to pay for it himself...oops I forgot then that cuts out all the College fatcats....just follow the money..and the irregularities all sort of work out....

ah screw it.......

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Regardless of the circumstances of the case, the prospect of 17/18 year old kids (they are kids at that age) entering the draft is bad for everyone but the rare exceptional player. Lots of kids will jump too soon. It will take longer to develop the lucky ones that stick.

If the NFL loses this case, you can bet they will make the issue an important point in the next collective bargining session with input from NLRB to close the loophole.

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