Clarett continues court fight to play in pros

Updated: May 26, 2004, 5:45 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Maurice Clarett on Wednesday filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit for a hearing with the full 12-member court to overturn the court's three-judge panel, which earlier this week ruled that the NFL's draft eligibility rules are legal.

On Monday, the court's judges ruled that the draft eligibility rules amount to a non-statutory exemption to the U.S. antitrust laws because the NFL and the NFL Players Association have agreed to the rules through binding collective bargaining.

Clarett's appeal states that the decision by the three-judge panel "so contradicts the teachings of the United States Supreme Court and this Circuit in this area that the delicate balance between national labor and antitrust policy is skewed beyond their precedent. Mr. Clarett is ready and able to compete for a position in the NFL and member teams, believing he is able to play in their league, are ready to draft him.

"What prevents him from this endeavor," the appeal read, "is a naked and outdated restraint unilaterally imposed by the NFL outside of the bargaining process, yet held immune by the Panel from the reach of the antitrust laws."

The full appeals court rarely accepts such appeals, only for "cases of extraordinary interest and importance," the court's guidelines state. The NFL does not have to respond until the full appeals court asks for a hearing.

A lower court judge in February ruled Clarett eligible for the draft. It said the NFL was violating federal antitrust laws by blocking Clarett's entry into his profession with a rule barring eligibility until a player was three years out of high school. Clarett is only two years out of high school.

After the appeals court blocked Clarett's entry, saying it believed it would rule against him, the 20-year-old athlete sought help from the U.S. Supreme Court. Two justices turned him down.

On Monday, the appeals court said Clarett was "no different from the typical worker who is confident that he or she has the skills to fill a job vacancy, but does not possess the qualifications or meet the requisite criteria that have been set."

It said ruling in favor of Clarett would be deciding that professional football players were entitled to advantages under federal labor laws that transport workers, coal miners or meat packers do not enjoy.

The draft was held on April 24-25, and Clarett was ineligible for it. This ruling means he will not be eligible for a supplemental draft and will have to wait for the 2005 draft.

A victory by Clarett would have helped another college player: wide receiver Mike Williams of Southern California, who also tried to enter the draft despite the three-year rule.

Williams' agent, Michael Azzarelli, told ESPN on Monday that he will file a separate lawsuit against NFL in Tampa alleging the NFL encouraged Williams to make himself eligible for the draft.

Azzarelli has said that Williams' NFL eligibility should be considered separately from Clarett's because he entered the draft only after the league set a new deadline for previously ineligible players in the aftermath of the ruling that made Clarett eligible.

NFL officials have said they will keep Williams out of the league along with Clarett if they're legally able to do so because they warned Williams before he entered the draft that they would attempt to overturn the decision and would rule Williams ineligible if they were able to reverse the decision.

Information from ESPN's Sal Paolantonio and The Associated Press was used in this report.

ALSO SEE