Suit claims NFL rules restrain amateurs

Updated: September 24, 2003, 11:30 AM ET
Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Maurice Clarett is going to court in a bid to enter the 2004 NFL draft.

The suspended Ohio State tailback sued the NFL on Tuesday, asking a judge to throw out a rule that prevents him from entering the draft until he has been out of high school for three years.

The lawsuit contends the NFL rule violates antitrust law and harms competition.

Clarett, who ran for 1,237 yards and led Ohio State to the national championship as a freshman last season, wants U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin to declare him eligible for the 2004 draft -- or require the NFL to hold a special supplemental draft sooner. Under current rules, he's not eligible until 2005.

"Had Clarett been eligible for the 2003 Draft, it is almost certain he would have been selected in the beginning of the First Round and would have agreed to a contract and signing bonus worth millions of dollars," according to the lawsuit filed in federal court in New York.

The NFL says it will fight any challenge to the rule it adopted in 1990 because coaches and executives believe younger players aren't physically ready for the league.

"We do not believe that this lawsuit serves the best interests of Maurice Clarett or college football players generally, but we look forward to explaining to the court both the very sound reasons underlying our eligibility rule and the legal impediments to the claim that was filed," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.

Football is the only sport with a draft that doesn't allow teams to select players when their high school eligibility is finished.

Clarett was suspended from the team for at least a year after an investigation determined he broke NCAA bylaws concerning benefits for athletes and lied to investigators.

His lawyer, Alan Milstein, filed the suit a day after he and Clarett's mother met with NFL executives in Washington to discuss whether Clarett would be eligible for the April 24 draft.

Many observers have said it would take years for a player to overturn the NFL's three-year rule. Milstein disagrees.

"Three months, best-case scenario," he said Tuesday. "The worst-case scenario is it takes us past April -- but I don't think it will be the worst-case scenario."

The suit argues the NFL rule "is a restraint of amateur athletes who were strangers to the collective bargaining process."

A Duke University legal expert said the NFL will probably have trouble keeping Clarett out of the draft.

"Any attempt by competitors to restrain competition in the labor market is regarded by the courts with great suspicion," law professor Paul Haagen said. "Unless the restraint falls under a limited number of narrow exceptions, it will be treated as a violation of the antitrust laws."

When NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was asked earlier this month if he thought the league could win such a lawsuit, he replied: "My feeling as commissioner is that we have a very strong case and that we'll win it."

The NFL Players' Association said in a statement Tuesday that, under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, it wouldn't sue or be a party to a suit against the league challenging the college draft. The association declined further comment.

Milstein said that if Clarett wins his suit against the NFL, it wouldn't mean dozens of players would leave college early.

"This is not going to open the floodgates," he said. "You still will have to be of a certain level of ability to consider this. I read where someone said, 'We don't want 13-year-olds in the NFL.' That's ridiculous. You still would have to be drafted, signed and make the team."

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said he had spoken to Clarett's mother this week and was told Clarett would be enrolled for the fall quarter.

"I don't know really much of what's behind the decision, so I don't know if he's testing the waters, how he's approaching it," Tressel said.

Clarett can only be reinstated by Ohio State after the school appeals to the NCAA. Athletic director Andy Geiger said Tuesday that, "We don't intend to apply for reinstatement for quite a while."

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press