Health, inexperience could hurt Clarett

Even though a judge has decided Maurice Clarett is eligible for the NFL draft, the jury is out on whether he'll succeed in the league.

Updated: February 6, 2004, 10:36 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Now that the genie has escaped the bottle, these questions, ones that will confront NFL scouts at a time when the 2004 draft evaluation process is beginning to hit stride: Can that mercurial genie, in the person of former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett, even get out of his own backfield? Or, at age 20, is he a guy destined to be bottled up by bigger, faster and stronger linemen than most Big Ten defenses put on the field?

One can argue the merits of Clarett's lawsuit against the league's draft rules, the wisdom of Judge Shira A. Scheindlin who Thursday ruled the policy a violation of antitrust laws, or the sagacity of NFL lawyers in preparing to appeal an opinion it likely won't overturn no matter how much they argue.

But in the end, after all the rhetoric has run out, and attorneys tire of filing appeals briefs and motions, the real-life case of Clarett will eventually boil down to this: Can this kid, who is just 20 years old and played one season for the Buckeyes before getting greedy enough to lose his eligibility, really cut it at the next level?

Maurice Clarett
Maurice Clarett helped carry Ohio State's national title hopes during the 2002 season.
If he can, well, all those alarmists who have suggested that there will soon be high school seniors applying for the NFL draft, will see the current hand-wringing justified. If Clarett fails to demonstrate that he can play with the big boys, however, and there is plenty of suspicion his current skills set will fall shy of NFL caliber, those same high schools kids (or at least most of them), will regard him as an even bigger boob than the one revealed during the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII.

That may be an oversimplification of the ramifications of Thursday's events. But it is, to be sure, the bottom-line reality.

Had the NBA pioneer Spencer Haywood been a bust, a backup forward who sat at the end of the bench every evening, such experiences might not have completely stinted the flow of non-seniors into the basketball draft. But there might have been enough smart young men out there to realize it takes more than a 40-inch vertical jump, and a spate of rim-rattling dunks to survive life in the pros.

Should the suspect Clarett fall on his face in the NFL, fail to make an immediate impact, the kid down the street who plays for the local high school team will take note. And will, it says here, decide to take college classes for three years rather than a shortcut.

Certainly there have been examples of high school players opting for the NBA draft and then going unselected. Such misjudgments haven't stopped others from trying to take the same risky route. But after all the attention Clarett has received, for him to succeed in the courts and then prove a bust will send a pretty strong message. The cap might not ever go back on the genie's bottle, but that doesn't mean the genies will all opt to out themselves.

We could spend plenty of time and space here debating the antitrust laws. We could laud or lambast attorney Alan C. Milstein, who successfully argued Clarett's case. We could criticize the NFL and the NFL Players Association, as ESPN.com did months ago, for not tightening the draft rules or more explicitly addressing them in the collective bargaining agreement.

But what good would that do? First off, we are not attorneys, even though a law degree may soon become a prerequisite for covering all sports, given the penchant for playing out games in courts instead of arenas. And second, even with some arcane feelings that sports should be somehow exempted from antitrust laws, the NFL acknowledges that it is a business entity, just as is, say, IBM.

There was going to finally come a day -- and it arrived when Clarett committed enough infractions to get himself bounced off the Ohio State team and found a lawyer with a big enough ego to handle his case -- when the league rules were challenged and found wanting.

That such a day dawned on Thursday, when a judge with a record for favoring allegedly wronged plaintiffs, was just the fait finally connecting with the accompli. And so it is time to move on, to peer into the cracked crystal ball, and see what's next.

What is next for Clarett, who rushed for 1,237 yards and 18 touchdowns in his lone Big Ten season, is far more scrutiny as an NFL prospect than any he has endured over the last several months as a defendant. The numbers on his lawsuit document, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, read "03-CV-7441." The numeral Clarett was seeking in the lawsuit, and let's not be so naïve as to ignore this fact, is the No. 1. As in first-round draft pick.

Having prevailed in front of a somewhat misguided judge, who might not understand the box of worms she has opened, will Clarett succeed in front of even tougher arbiters? That is a much bigger question and one more pertinent to his future. The answer: The judges he is going to shortly face, the league scouts who will now begin assessing his skills as a prospect and will closely scrutinize a truncated college career, don't yet have an answer.

Their opinions for now, offered not for attribution because commissioner Paul Tagliabue frowns on any public debate involving underclass players not yet qualified for the draft, hint that Clarett probably isn't as good as he and his mouthpiece attorney think he is. And reinforcing those opinions, gleaned from a very short body of work in one season at Ohio State, would be so easy.

For one thing, the NFL's pending appeal of Scheindlin's ruling could mean the matter remains in court beyond the start of the NFL Scouting Combine workouts in Indianapolis, which begin in two weeks. The league is apt to caution teams that, since it has yet to grant Clarett official entry into the 2004 draft, scouts cannot work him out individually. Until such time as they can, scouts remain dubious about Clarett's ability to be a viable NFL player, at least at this stage of his development.

Let's face it, Clarett isn't nearly as big or fast as the "triangle numbers" -- height, weight and 40-yard time -- the Ohio State propaganda machine issued when the tailback was still in the good graces of the university. When he did play, he was not often at 100 percent physically, and questions remain about past shoulder and ankle injuries. Plus, he hasn't been on a football field in more than a full year, and no one can predict what degree of physical oxidation has resulted from his hiatus.

And, oh, yeah, Clarett isn't quite a choir boy. Beyond the NCAA infractions that landed him in trouble, there are fresh gambling allegations about his sugar daddy. Suffice it to say there are more flies buzzing around Clarett than normally accompany a garbage truck in the summertime. Those league teams that offer more than lip service to the notion that character counts for something will certainly take note that Clarett isn't squeaky clean.

Then there were all those conflicting statements from various members of the Clarett family, immediate and extended, about his potential for returning to school. And about how he might eschew the NFL (yeah, right, folks) even if he won the case. The Clarett posse, comprised of a whole lot of folks who recognize the potential for stashing their own pockets with green, never got on the same page. But being disingenuous, the last time we checked, isn't against the law.

None of that means he shouldn't have won his case on the merits of the law. Nor does it suggest Clarett won't be considered by franchises when the NFL is eventually forced to include him either in its regular-phase draft in April or in a later supplemental lottery. If the Thursday ruling is upheld, Clarett could be in a training camp this summer. That does not, of course, guarantee he will be on the field this fall.

"The NFL will not draft on potential," Michael Huyghue, an NFL agent and former Jacksonville Jaguars official, told ESPN.com. "If you look at the size of rosters today, they need rookie players who can actually play. Stashing players isn't an avenue you can do today. NFL rosters are not designed to be a developmental option."

In her ruling, Scheindlin suggested the league might implement some system of physical and mental batteries aimed at validating draft eligibility, rather than excluding people just based on age alone. Apparently in her zeal, Scheindlin didn't realize that most franchises, indeed, have such testing.

Clarett, at some point this spring, will probably be subjected to such a gauntlet. How well he does in convincing NFL scouts that he is worthy of high-round consideration will have some bearing on future players. Our bet: The purveyors of doom, who foresee a day when dozens of 18-year-old kids fresh out of high school are trying to get into the draft, won't have much to worry about.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Information from ESPN.com's Tom Farrey was used in this report.

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