Maurice Clarett, a 20-year-old former star running back from Ohio State, won a landmark victory yesterday when a federal court struck down the National Football League's rule forcing players to wait three years after high school to enter the draft.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin delivered a 70-page decision in Manhattan that said the rule violates antitrust law and will likely send Clarett - along with other eager underclassmen - into the NFL draft in April.
"I was pleased that the rule was brought down," Clarett said at a news conference. "It gives kids an opportunity to choose."
The league confirmed it will appeal the ruling, but remained uncertain yesterday whether it will seek a stay of the order, pending further examination of the ruling.
"We'll get the best players coming out of college and we will be able to coach them to play the NFL game," said Jeff Pash, the league's chief in-house counsel, in a teleconference. "The people who are going to be hurt are people who for one reason or another try to make the jump from college to NFL when they're not ready to do so.
"We will not be the ultimate losers here. It's not a good thing for us, but there are some other people that will be affected more and in a more adverse way."
Pash said he thinks the league has a good chance to get a reversal but is studying the effects of seeking a stay to block Clarett's entrance into the league this year.
Clarett was the first player to challenge the league's eligibility rule adopted in 1990, prohibiting a college player from joining the NFL until three years have elapsed since his high school graduation. That would prevent him from entering the draft until 2005.
The league pins its case on the fact that the rule is part of the collective bargaining agreement. But Judge Scheindlin said, "He is not permitted to be drafted allegedly because the NFL and the union agreed to exclude players in his class. But Clarett's eligibility is not the union's to trade away. Indeed the rule does not deal with the rights of any NFL players or draftees."
The league instituted the rule because of its concern that younger players aren't physically or emotionally prepared for the demands of professional football. The National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball allow athletes whose high school class has graduated to play; the National Hockey League requires players to be at least 18 years old.
The NBA's policy has lead to an influx of teen-agers, some directly out of high school such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Critics have argued that it has led to a talent drain on the college level.
Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver doesn't expect to see an exodus of players like the NCAA sees each year in college basketball, but he knows there will be enough who leave for football.
"I see it somewhere in between," Weaver said. "I don't think it will get close to basketball due to the physical issues, but I think there will be more young people going out, especially those who haven't been motivated to work academically."
Pash said the NFL will open a new window for applying to the draft to accommodate players who want to take advantage of the court decision. As for Clarett, he said yesterday he will wait on the NFL's legal action before deciding to formally apply.
One underclassman who is certain to be drafted this year is Larry Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh's sophomore wide receiver who was declared eligible by the NFL yesterday.
Fitzgerald petitioned the league for early-entry after spending a year at Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy and two years at Pittsburgh. A native of Minneapolis, Minn., he left the Academy of Holy Angels midway through his senior year in 2000-01 and went to Valley Forge to improve his grades for college.
It is likely that Fitzgerald, runner-up for the Heisman Trophy this season, will be taken ahead of Clarett. It's possible he may even be taken with the second pick in the draft. Clarett, who will participate in the NFL scouting combine in two weeks, may be a first- or early second-round choice.
After leading Ohio State to a 14-0 season and the national championship in 2002, Clarett was suspended for the 2003 season for accepting improper benefits from a family friend and allegedly lying to investigators.
Two weeks after the suspension in September, he sued the NFL to get into the draft.
Clarett's lawyer, Alan Milstein, described the court decision yesterday as a "total victory."
But the ripples of reaction around the league suggested something else.
Speaking from the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington told reporters that Clarett, who is 6-feet, 230-pounds, will not have an easy time when training camp opens next summer.
"Because of the way he's done all these things, some people here see it as disrespectful," Arrington said. "I'm sure guys are going to break his tail, try to break him in.
"Either he'll be a success, 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."
Said Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Trent Green: "It's going to take a pretty tough player to pull it off."
Looking at the bigger picture, Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy voiced concern over the potential influx of underclassmen.
"There is a lot of pressure to win in the NFL," he said. "It's not going to be beneficial to the majority of guys who want to come out early."
Said players agent Angelo Wright: "This opens a whole can of worms.
"The first question out of a player's mouth will be where and when do I go in the draft. In reality, I expect the NFL to remain rigid and steadfast on their position. But you're going to get a lot of guys who aren't mentally and physically ready to turn pro, but [who] want to chase that long-time dream."
Tony Agnone, a Baltimore agent, seconded that warning.
"This is not a pretty situation," he said. "This is a headache no one wanted to deal with. These 18- and 19-year-olds are not going to understand the physical and mental challenges of the NFL until they get there, and by then they will have lost scholarships and eligibility. Right now, the NFL's only hope is to tie this thing up in litigation, and hope it doesn't move before the April draft."
Said University of Miami athletic director Paul Dee, "If this decision is upheld, it would have a serious effect on the football programs at colleges and universities, and athletes unprepared for that transition."
Sun staff writers Don Markus and Mike Preston and the Associated Press contributed to this article.
About the ruling
What it means: Athletes would be eligible to play in the NFL right out of high school, which likely would have profound effects on college and high school football programs and the welfare of players.
Reaction: College coaches and administrators express disappointment with the ruling, saying that young players are not physically ready for the NFL. Page 1C
The Spencer Haywood Case, March 22, 1971 -- Federal Court rules NBA eligibility rule in violation of antitrust laws.
Haywood, an underclassman at the time, signed with the Denver Rockets of the ABA in 1969 after the league made an exception for him on its rule prohibiting the signing of college players. Haywood jumped to the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics early in the 1970-71 season, but the then-NBA commissioner disapproved the contract because of the NBA's college rule. Haywood sued and the U.S. District court ruled that the NBA was in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The league later modified its rule to permit hardship cases. In the years since, the league has in effect relaxed its requirement to prove hardship.
The Ken Linseman Case, Oct. 22, 1977 -- In 1976, Linseman, 19, signed to play with a team in the World Hockey Association.
At the time both the WHA and the NHL had rules requiring players to be at least 20 years old to play in their legues. The WHA voided the deal with Linseman, who then sued the league, claiming he was the victim of illegal restraint of trade, and that the WHA was in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The federal courts agreed, striking down the age requirement.
The WHA and NHL lowered the age requirement to 18. There has been no challenge to the new age requirement.
The Bob Boris Case, Feb. 28, 1984 -- Boris, a punter at the University of Arizona, sued the United States Football League and one of its teams, the Arizona Wranglers, challenging the league's rule prohibiting the signing of underclassmen who still had eligibility.
A U.S. District Court judge decided that the league's eligibility rule as it applied to Boris constituted a "group boycott" and was in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
This is the court decision that the NFL fears the most in defending its policy of dealing with college athletes. Newsday