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Brown says Clarett can be 'pioneer'

10/14/2003 - Ohio State Buckeyes

Maurice Clarett sued the NFL over its early-entry draft prohibition because, like Curt Flood and others who challenged employment restrictions on athletes, he wants to be a leader in opening up doors for other talented young football players, said Clarett family advisor Jim Brown.

"He understands he can be a pioneer," Brown said in an interview with ESPN.com. "He wants to help other players. He's told me several times that he wants to do something that is bigger than himself. And he knows this will be a big challenge for him. He's fighting what seems like the most powerful organization in world -- one with political power, the best lawyers, all the money."

Clarett's mother, Michelle, and his attorney, Alan C. Milstein, met for an hour with NFL executives on Monday to address a league rule preventing players from entering the draft until they have been out of high school three years. An NFL spokesman had termed it a "good discussion."

However, the lawsuit was filed in Manhattan federal court asking a judge to declare the rule a violation of anti-trust law. Brown said Clarett decided to move quickly with legal action because the NFL declined to give his representatives a date by when the league planned to respond to his request to enter the 2004 draft.

"The meeting went well, it was cordial," said Brown, who spoke to Milstein Monday night. "But when (Milstein and Michelle Clarett) asked for how long it would take for the league to get back to them -- one week, two weeks -- the league left it up in the air."

Clarett, a Heisman Trophy candidate coming into the season, was suspended for the year by Ohio State after the sophomore running back was accused of violating NCAA amateurism rules by taking "thousands of dollars" in extra benefits, reportedly from a high school associate in Youngstown.

His honesty also has been questioned, due to a charge that he allegedly misled police about the value of items stolen from a loaner car he was driving. He pleaded not guilty.

The events of recent months have forged Clarett's resolve to address the treatment of young athletes, Brown said.

"He wants to point out what's wrong with the system," he said. "He knows it's not fair. And he sees preferential treatment -- players who have done more wrong than he has have gotten off easier. People don't want him to stand up for himself; they just want him to be appreciative of what has come his way. But he wants to stand up.

"I think that's a big statement today. Most people just want to take the money and shut up."

Curt Flood was the St. Louis Cardinals player who paved the way for free agency in Major League Baseball by challenging clubs' control over player movement. Spencer Haywood successfully challenged the NBA's rule that prevented early entry to that league.

On the college level, the concept of athletes' rights is a relatively new development. The NFL and NCAA have created a system that have benefited both parties, with the colleges essentially having the rights to the best young talent for their first three years out of high school, and the NFL using college football as a de facto minor league.

Clarett wants to shake up that arrangement. And he may not be alone for long in his cause. The Congressional Black Caucus has expressed interest in the issue, said Brown, who is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a "Diversity in the Sports Industry" conference organized by John Conyers, Jr., D-Mich., Thursday in Washington, D.C. Milstein and Michelle Clarett, but not Maurice, are expected to attend.

A spokesman for the Congressional Black Caucus, an influential 39-member group of house representatives, told ESPN.com that the group has taken no position on the Clarett case but will discuss it soon. "We will review the case and [NFL] policy and may issue a formal statement in the days or weeks to come," said Doug Thornell, spokesman for Rep. Elijiah Cummings, D-Md., chair of the caucus.

Brown doubts that a Clarett victory against the NFL would lead to scores of young athletes leaving college early -- or skipping it altogether -- as has happened to a degree in basketball.

"It's not going to open the floodgates," he said. "Only the (elite) players will benefit from it. LeBron (James) is a man. He has the body of a man, and he can run and jump like a man.

"There aren't going to be lot of guys coming out of high school. Sure, you can come out, but that doesn't mean anyone is going to draft you."

Not that Brown buys the conventional logic that players such as Clarett, who turns 20 on Oct. 29, may not be physically developed enough to play in the NFL.

"I played when I was 19, so what the hell," the NFL Hall of Famer said, chuckling.

Tom Farrey is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn3.com.