Decision on eligibility will have to wait

Updated: January 14, 2004, 11:40 AM ET
By Tom Farrey | ESPN.com

Even if Maurice Clarett wins his lawsuit versus the National Football League, he still might return to Ohio State for another season. And the Buckeyes would more than likely take him back if he remains academically eligible.

Discussions about the possibility of Clarett returning to the team he helped lead to the 2002 national championship are expected to pick up now that the bowl season is completed and his misdemeanor criminal case has reached its conclusion.

They're betting Clarett won't win suit
For what it's worth, gamblers don't believe Maurice Clarett will be playing in the NFL next season.

When Clarett sued the NFL in September, one Costa Rica-based sports book, betcbsports.com, began offering a proposition bet on whether Clarett would be cleared to enter the 2004 draft. At the time, the site's oddsmakers expected that Clarett would win his case, setting a line of minus 140 -- meaning a bettor who concurred would have to put down $140 to win $100.

Increasingly, however, the money has swung hard in the other direction, said Dave Johnson, CEO of Bet CB Sports. Most of the 640 bets the site has received have been on the side of Clarett failing to gain clearance to join the NFL this year. In fact, now bettors who believe he'll lose his case have to lay $150 just to make $100.

"If the decision came down right now, we would be rooting for [Clarett to win] because there's more money on the other side," Johnson said, noting that much of the money is coming from Ohio.

Due to the wildly speculative nature of the prop -- Johnson doesn't pretend to be an anti-trust lawyer -- the most that can be bet is $250. But he said the limit will rise in the coming weeks as the federal judge, who is expected to rule by Feb. 1, nears a decision.
-- Tom Farrey, ESPN.com

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel met with Clarett and one of his advisors, former NFL player Vince Marrow, after the Michigan loss in November that knocked the Buckeyes out of national title contention. Marrow said that Clarett's time away from the program has made Clarett reflect upon the actions, including his own, that led to his high-profile banishment from the team as a sophomore. Clarett was suspended for receiving extra benefits in violation of NCAA rules, then allegedly trying to cover up those violations in interviews with NCAA investigators.

"The NFL is his [preference] but he has some regrets for how things ended at Ohio State, so he might want to play one more year," Marrow said. "After all, it's not a given that he'll be a first-round pick in the draft this year."

Clarett, whose team of advisors also includes Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, is exploring his draft prospects. NFL scouts are prohibited from commenting on prospects until the league declares them eligible for the draft. Still, Clarett is considered something of a wild card for NFL teams: a fierce competitor with good size (6 feet, 230 pounds) and skills but with only one season of college ball to be judged by. Despite injuries, Clarett -- the first Buckeye freshman starter at running back in 43 years -- ran for 1,237 yards in his lone season, the most ever for an Ohio State freshman.

A decision in his lawsuit against the NFL is expected by Feb. 1. The lawsuit asks a U.S. District Court judge to invalidate the league rule that prevents players from entering the draft until three NFL seasons have "elapsed" -- language that has evolved into a league policy stating that players must be three years out of high school. Alan Milstein, Clarett's lawyer, has argued that Clarett technically meets the standard of the actual rule because he graduated high school early -- in December 2001 before that particular NFL season had elapsed -- but that the policy should be dumped anyway on anti-trust grounds.

Tressel, who as recently as September had said that he would recommend releasing Clarett from his scholarship if asked to do so, told ESPN.com that he "absolutely" wants the sophomore to rejoin the Buckeyes, who finished fourth in the polls but struggled on offense much of the season without the Heisman-caliber tailback.

"Obviously, he is searching a couple different paths," said Tressel, referring to Clarett's pending lawsuit challenging the NFL's early-entry draft rule. "Exactly which [path] he's most interested in, I can't say. But I know that being here and being part of Ohio State and moving forward here is one [option] he would like to look into."

No decision on Clarett's eligibility status will be made until after the winter quarter, which ends with final exams March 18, said Ohio State spokesman Steve Snapp.

But predicted draft position might play into that scenario, as well. Marrow said Clarett is considering a return to Ohio State even if the judge sides with him before the upcoming draft. In that event, he could open the doors for young players such as Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald to enter the upcoming draft, while trying to improve his own draft prospects in 2005 with another impressive season in Columbus.

Either way, Clarett, who is described by those close to him as aspiring to be a pioneer for players' rights, apparently has no plans to drop his potentially ground-breaking lawsuit.

"He wants that rule broken," Marrow said.

Clarett, who has not spoken publicly since September, was unavailable for comment. Clarett, who was accused of filing a campus police report that exaggerated the value of items stolen from a dealership car he borrowed last year, pleaded guilty Wednesday to a lesser charge that carries no jail time. The charge does not appear on a criminal record.

Meanwhile, Ohio State must petition the NCAA to allow Clarett to be reinstated. To do that, Clarett must first make restitution for the cell phone bills that were paid by Bobby Dellimuti, a booster of the high school program in Warren, Ohio, who for several years has been a benefactor to Clarett. Dellimuti also gave $500 in cash to Clarett while at Ohio State.

In all, the benefits that Clarett must make restitution for amount to $3,800, Marrow said. Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger declined to offer a specific amount but indicated it was no more than $5,000. The money he must repay goes to the charity of his choice.

Clarett must also meet specified academic and "personal growth" standards to gain reinstatement. The requirements in the latter standard are subjective, and give Ohio State some room to deny Clarett a return to the team if necessary, Geiger said. Academically, Clarett has remained enrolled at Ohio State and is on track to meet NCAA eligibility requirements, despite reports of troubles in two classes during the fall semester, Marrow said.

Tressel is believed to be more enthusiastic than Geiger about Clarett potentially returning. In September, Geiger was cited by Brown for "acting like a slave master" when decisions were being made about Clarett's punishment. Geiger conceded that the ordeal has tested him.

"The whole process has been like a canker sore that really is bothersome and mettlesome because you can't get rid of it," Geiger said. "Week after week after week after week, you're dealing with another piece of it. So it's wearing. It's tiring."

At the same time, Geiger said the program could have done a better job at handling Clarett. "It's a chronicle of failure," he said. "We have not successfully served Maurice Clarett very well."

In September, Tressel had expressed a similar sentiment. However, back then Clarett was already being talked about in the past tense, with Tressel saying that he "loved" Clarett and found himself asking, "What could I have done? Spend more time? Done a better job in some areas?"

Among those pulling for Clarett's return to Ohio State is his father, Myke Clarett. Although they have not been close in a couple of years, Clarett has expressed to his son his reservations about suing the NFL, which he believes will try to punish Maurice in some way if he beats the league in court.

"How did baseball deal with Curt Flood?" Myke Clarett said of the Major League Baseball player who helped push that sport into the era of free agency but never benefited financially from his crusade. "The guy who shakes the tree does not get the fruit. The only time it's good to be a martyr is in the movies."

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

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