NFL plans to appeal ruling

Updated: February 6, 2004, 3:37 PM ET
Associated Press

Feb. 5
Should the court ruling declaring Maurice Clarett eligible for the draft be upheld, the Ohio State sophomore looks like no more than a second-round pick. Clarett had a heck of a freshman year in 2002 (1,237 yards, 5.6 ypc, 16 TDs) but missed three entire games and parts of others with injuries. Durability is a question, as is the fact that he has not played football for more than a year. Clarett has the talent to rate among the top backs available, but talented running backs like Steven Jackson, Kevin Jones and Chris Perry are coming off stellar seasons and still rank ahead of Clarett.

Even if Clarett returned to Ohio State he would not automatically become the top-rated RB in the nation. Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams of Auburn and Cedric Benson of Texas are all first-round talents who opted to return for their senior seasons, so Clarett will have plenty of competition even if he returns to college. No matter what happens Clarett has a lot to prove.

And should this ruling hold up, it will not open the floodgates to an influx of freshman and sophomores entering the draft. Look at all the potential first-round juniors who returned to college this year for their final seasons: Williams and Brown at Auburn, Benson and LB Derrick Johnson at Texas and DE Dan Cody at Oklahoma. And don't forget that every year guys like Eli Manning and Roy Williams head back to school and become top-10 caliber prospects. Some kids will test the waters, no doubt, but with so many good juniors already shying away from the NFL this ruling should not create a stampede of first and second-year players to the NFL.

NEW YORK -- A federal judge opened the door for Ohio State sensation Maurice Clarett and teenage football stars to turn pro, declaring Thursday that an NFL rule barring their eligibility violates antitrust law and "must be sacked."

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin said legal issues are so clearly in Clarett's favor a trial is unnecessary. The NFL said it will appeal, and it will probably try to block the ruling before the April draft.

Clarett sued the league last year to challenge its 1990 rule that a player must be out of high school three years to enter the draft.

"I was pleased that the rule was brought down," Clarett said at a news conference. "It gives kids an opportunity to choose."

Clarett's lawyer, Alan Milstein, called it a "total victory." He said the star running back was "thrilled" and would speak at a news conference in New York later Thursday.

Jeff Pash, the executive vice president of the NFL, said the ruling left him "really surprised" but confident on appeal because its findings contradicted those of past court rulings.

The ruling, if it holds up on appeal, means that high school football players and college underclassmen will be able to make the jump to the pros just like their counterparts in the NBA.

Dozens of basketball players, including Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, have gone to the NBA straight after high school in recent years, becoming instant celebrities and signing shoe endorsement deals that make them millionaires before the ink is dry on their high school diplomas.

Scheindlin wrote that the NFL rule "is precisely the sort of conduct that the antitrust laws were designed to prevent."

"One can scarcely think of a more blatantly anticompetitive policy than one that excludes certain competitors from the market altogether," she wrote.

Clarett, a 20-year-old sophomore, played just one season at Ohio State, leading the Buckeyes to the 2002 national championship. He was barred from playing in the 2003 season for accepting improper benefits from a family friend and then lying to investigators about it.

Ohio State would have to petition the NCAA to allow Clarett to return for the 2004 season, and it is unclear whether the school would succeed. The court ruling came a day after Ohio State said it was investigating an report that the family friend was gambling while in daily contact with Clarett during the 2002 season.

Clarett would be prevented from entering the NFL draft until 2005 under current rules.

His lawyers had called the rule arbitrary and anticompetitive, arguing it robbed players like Clarett of an opportunity to enter the multimillion-dollar marketplace.

Scheindlin noted courts had already eliminated similar age-based rules violating antitrust laws in professional basketball and hockey. She said the NFL had kept one in effect since Illinois' star running back, Harold "Red" Grange, left school in 1925 to join the Chicago Bears for $50,000.

The league argued that Clarett should not be eligible for the draft because its rule resulted from a collective bargaining agreement with the players and is immune from antitrust scrutiny.

"We believe today's ruling is inconsistent in numerous respects with well-established labor and antitrust law," the league said.

No other player has challenged the eligibility rule. It was supported by the league's coaches and executives, who say younger players aren't physically ready for the NFL, although the 6-foot, 230-pound Clarett could be an exception.

"I don't know that the floodgates are opening," Pash said. "While the ruling is broad in its language, I think we have to wait and see what the effect is."

Some observers doubted the ruling would lead many youngsters to try to turn pro.

"Most of these guys aren't ready, and the teams know that," said Robert A. McCormick, a professor at the Detroit College of Law at Michigan State University who worked on the Clarett case.

Jeff Reynolds, a writer at Pro Football Weekly, said the ruling probably would not have an immediate effect on young players around the country, but he suggested that could change if NFL teams started sending scouts to high school games.

It was more likely, he said, that players will leave college early to enter the draft.

Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington said Clarett could be in for a rough time when he joins the league.

"Because of the way he's done all these things, some people here see it as disrespectful," Arrington said at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. "I'm sure guys are going to break his tail, try to break him in.

"Either he'll succeed, or he'll be a total bust. If he can make it that rookie year without being assassinated, I think he'll be all right."

During his state of the NFL address two days before the Super Bowl, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said the league wouldn't try to reach a settlement with Clarett.

"It's a pretty direct point in terms of what the rule is, and Maurice Clarett's status falls under the rule," Tagliabue said. "Our system is working. It is easy to identify players who were helped by staying in school and were developing their skills."

Scheindlin wasn't swayed by the league's arguments.

"While, ordinarily, the best offense is a good defense," she said, "none of these defenses hold the line."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press