Thursday, September 11, 2003

Clarett's next move could shake NFL

League's early-entry rule never before has been tested

The Arizona Republic

Star tailback Maurice Clarett - charged with misdemeanor falsification for lying in a police report, and suspended from Ohio State University's football team - probably has reached the end of his college football career just nine months after he led the Buckeyes to the national title in the Fiesta Bowl.

But it doesn't mean his football career is over.

Indeed, his next carry may be in the NFL - and it might be sooner than the league would prefer. The sophomore from Warren, Ohio, is considering a challenge to the NFL rule that bars players who are less than three years removed from high school.

The NFL rule is unique among American professional sports leagues. NFL officials and general managers argue that football, with high-speed collisions involving 300-pound men, is more physically demanding than other sports. Officials also say the rule gives players time to mature emotionally before they sign lucrative contracts.

For years, legal experts and NFL officials alike privately have wondered who would test the rule. "Clarett is the guy," said Pete Rush, a Chicago attorney who specializes in NCAA-related litigation. "It's an absolute bar to the entry of a profession, and it's absolutely arbitrary. The rule can't stand."

"He's got nothing to lose by filing suit," said Michigan State law professor Robert McCormick, a former National Labor Relations Board attorney. The NFL and NCAA, by contrast, stand to lose a lot. If Clarett successfully sues, it could shake the sport to its foundations. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue established the rule in 1990. Before that, the league barred all underclassmen from the draft but made exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

"The fact that our rule hasn't been challenged in almost a decade and a half leads us to believe it's a good rule," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said from league headquarters in New York.

If courts strike down the draft rule, Division I-A football programs could see their rosters churn as stars spend only a year or two on campus.

"I think what you would see is a lot of guys going to the NFL early and crashing and burning," said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, a former NFL assistant coach.

Experts say Clarett's legal challenge probably would be that the NFL is making a judgment that amounts to age discrimination.

On its face, the rule would appear to be an antitrust violation. But the league probably would argue that its rule is exempt because the NFL players union has agreed to it, McCormick said.

"They definitely have a defense," he said. "... But I don't think that in this country a group of businessmen can get together and decide that Maurice Clarett can't pursue his living."

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