<
>

Cites concerns about physical readiness

WASHINGTON -- NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw echoed commissioner Paul Tagliabue's position Wednesday, saying he believes suspended Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett should stay in school and not try to become eligible for the 2004 college draft, the Washington Post reports.

Upshaw, who attended part of a one-day league meeting in Washington Wednesday, told the paper, "We support [the NFL's] position. ... I don't think he should be playing in the NFL yet. He should stay in school. This will be here for him.

"I'm concerned about [him] physically being prepared to play. I'd have loved to have played against a guy who's 18. I'd have whipped him."

According to the paper, Clarett's attorney, Alan C. Milstein, had sent a letter to both Upshaw, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman with the Oakland Raiders, and Tagliabue requesting that Clarett be allowed to declare for the next college draft and play next year. The current NFL rule prohibits players from joining the league until at least three years after their class graduates from high school.

Milstein told the paper that he hopes to have a meeting with NFL attorney Jeff Pash early next week to present Clarett's case for inclusion in the draft and that his client is "keeping all of his options open."

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

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 the Major
League Baseball 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 draft eligibility rule.

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 would
affect 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 undergraduate
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 sues, 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.