Clarett makes official request to NFL to be eligible for 2004 draft

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 18, 2003

COLUMBUS (AP) - Maurice Clarett could be in the NFL even before the end of his one-year suspension at Ohio State.

The star running back has asked the NFL to change its rules and make him eligible for the 2004 draft, a year before he becomes eligible. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue says the NFL won't change its rules.

Clarett's next move might be to go to the courts to challenge the NFL rule, and some attorneys and sports experts say he has a good chance to win.

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Because a trial might not be resolved until after Clarett becomes eligible in 2005, his lawyers could ask for a preliminary court order against the rule.

''Courts do issue preliminary injunctions, and particularly in sports cases,'' said Alan C. Michaels, former lawyer for major league baseball's players' association. ''Courts often seem to get wrapped up in the excitement, mythology and action of sports and their decisions are sometimes less predictable.''

No player has ever taken on the 13-year-old NFL rule that prevents players from being eligible for the draft until after their third year out of high school.

The NFL adopted the rule because coaches and executives believe younger players aren't physically ready for the league, although Clarett, who turns 20 next month, could be an exception. He is 6 feet, 230 pounds.

''I would have loved to play against a guy who was 18 because I probably would have whipped him,'' said Gene Upshaw, president of the NFL Players' Association and a Hall of Fame guard.

Alan C. Milstein, Clarett's attorney, hasn't said whether the player would sue, only that he was considering all options.

Clarett's lawyers would have to convince a federal judge that it is likely they would win the case and that sitting out a season affects their client's future earnings.

That tactic worked for Spencer Haywood, who was allowed to play in the NBA with Seattle before his case wound through the courts.

Haywood, whose 1970 case set the precedent for allowing underage players into the NBA, won in the courtroom, lost on appeal and eventually received a ruling in his favor from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Clarett, suspended for at least a year last week for violating NCAA bylaws concerning benefits for athletes and for lying to investigators, set Ohio State freshman records with 1,237 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns last season as the Buckeyes won the national championship for the first time in 34 years.

Neil Cornrich, a Cleveland attorney and sports agent, said Clarett has a ''slam-dunk victory'' if the NFL can't be persuaded to change the draft rule and he goes to court.

Cornrich called the rule a violation of antitrust laws and said it was not specifically included in the NFL's collective bargaining agreement with the players' union.

''The rule was unilaterally imposed by the National Football League,'' said Cornrich, whose clients include New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

The NFL won't discuss its arguments unless Clarett sued, league spokesman Greg Aiello said. Still, he defended the regulation.

''The draft is part of our collective bargaining agreement and the eligibility rule has been the subject of collective bargaining discussions,'' he said.

Asked Sunday if he thought, as a lawyer, that the NFL could win a lawsuit, Tagliabue replied: ''My feeling as commissioner is that we have a very strong case and that we'll win it.''

Milstein wouldn't discuss specifics, but offered a prediction on the outcome of the case.

''Have you heard anybody other than the people at the NFL who say that it can't be won?'' he asked.

Clarett's camp also could argue that college football players deserve the chance to make money because they generate millions of dollars for their schools.

''If you have free enterprise for the universities, then you can't have socialism for the athletes,'' said Dr. Alan Sack, director of the Management of Sports Industries Program at the University of New Haven. (He also was a defensive end on Notre Dame's 1966 national championship team.)

James J. Brudney, an Ohio State law professor who specializes in labor and employment issues, warned that a court battle could last a year or two.

A federal judge probably wouldn't overturn the draft rule or grant Clarett a court order without allowing the NFL to present evidence or to appeal, which would significantly slow the process, Brudney said.

''The court system tends to want to be deliberative,'' he said. ''Many judges would be cautious and want to let the case develop with a record.''

The league's arguments against Clarett could include that pro football should be played only by physically mature men, said Murray Sperber, an Indiana University professor and college sports critic.

NFL lawyers also could argue the league should have an antitrust exemption, like major league baseball, although Sperber doesn't believe that would work.

Football doesn't have a minor league system that provides Clarett with an opportunity to develop into a professional, he said. Baseball, basketball, golf and tennis allow athletes to turn pro before entering college.

''So Clarett really can't go anywhere other than the Canadian Football League,'' Sperber said. ''It seems to me by the NFL saying 'You can't come here,' certainly courts in this day and age are going to say that's just an unfair practice and strike it down.''

The greater issue, according to Sack, is the NFL's desire to keep underclassmen in college football to maintain what amounts to ''free minor league training.''

''It's about time that some athlete stepped up and challenged the collusion between the NFL and the college athletic departments,'' he said.