Clarett#039;s lawyers argue for NFL rule change

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 14, 2003

NEW YORK - Calling suspended Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett a player without a game, his lawyers urged a judge Friday to end the NFL's ''free farm system'' by letting college-age athletes play professionally.

Citing a trailblazing series of court cases that knocked down similar rules in basketball, hockey and another football league, the lawyers called on U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin to let Clarett enter next year's NFL draft at age 20.

The Manhattan judge has said she will try to rule before Feb. 1, deciding a case that could expose teenage football stars to the marketing and business opportunities already available to young athletes in other sports.

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Clarett sued the NFL last summer to challenge a league rule that a player must be out of high school three years for draft eligibility.

His lawyers called the rule arbitrary and anticompetitive, arguing it robbed players like Clarett of an opportunity to enter the multimillion dollar marketplace.

''The rule exists solely to perpetuate the NCAA college football system, which serves as a free farm system for the NFL, saving the league tens of millions of dollars in development and training expense,'' Clarett's lawyers argued in papers.

Ohio State suspended Clarett before this season for accepting money from a family friend and for lying about it to NCAA and university investigators.

He rushed for 1,237 yards and led Ohio State to a national championship as a freshman last season but is ineligible for the draft until 2005 under current NFL rules.

The lawyers cited a court ruling letting baseball players move between franchises and other court decisions opening up basketball, hockey and the now defunct United States Football League to younger players.

But NFL lawyers argued the age limit was meant in part to reduce the increased likelihood of injury because men until their early 20s are not sufficiently mature physically and mentally to play in the NFL.

They said the rule protects NFL clubs from liability and protects adolescents who might train excessively or use steroids ''in the misguided hope of developing prematurely the strength and speed required to play in the NFL.''

Clarett's lawyers cited several exceptions to the NFL rule, noting Andy Livingston played for the Chicago Bears at age 19 in 1964 and Barry Sanders was only a junior in college when the NFL let him enter the draft.

They said the 6-foot, 230-pound Clarett was as tall and as heavy as NFL legends Sanders, Walter Payton and Gale Sayers. Clarett was as big or bigger than 15 of the top 20 rushing leaders as of the fifth week of this season, the lawyers said.

They attacked college football as ''a willing partner in a cozy arrangement as it generates millions of dollars for the colleges without their having to incur the expense of player salaries.''

If a college players is injured, the lawyers said, ''the NFL teams lose nothing while the player loses everything.''

The NFL asked the judge to toss out the case, saying Clarett's lawyers were wrong to assert that blocking the player from the draft until 2005 was an unfair restraint of trade.

The NFL said its market is governed by a contract agreement with its player's union, and Clarett's lawyers cannot challenge the rules unless they can demonstrate a market-wide impact.