The federal judge who opened the NFL draft door to Maurice Clarett pushed him through it yesterday, denying a motion to suspend her week-old decision to eliminate the league's eligibility rule.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin reaffirmed her ruling that the NFL violated antitrust law by allowing only players three years removed from high school graduation to enter the draft.
Her rejection of the NFL's appeal for a stay frees the 20-year-old running back, along with other college underclassmen and even high school players, to enter the April draft.
"Maurice Clarett's going to be in the draft," said Alan Milstein, Clarett's attorney, after the latest decision.
While the NFL will ask the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for a suspension of the ruling, a favorable verdict likely would come too late to preclude Clarett's entry.
"As far as we are concerned, he is eligible for the draft unless the Court of Appeals grants our motion for a stay," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.
In her appeal ruling, Scheindlin said Clarett could suffer "very detrimental" harm if held out of the draft this year, while the NFL would not be irreparably damaged should the former Ohio State star and other underclassmen join the league.
Players must announce they are entering the NFL draft by March 1.
"At worst, the NFL will be forced to tolerate the handful of younger players who are selected in the 2004 draft," the judge wrote. "What would amount to a one-year suspension of the league's eligibility rule scarcely imposes any great hardship on the NFL or its teams."
The NFL implemented its three-year rule in 1990, and incorporated it into the collective bargaining agreement in 1993, because of concern that younger players aren't physically or mentally ready for the rigors of pro football.
It is the last of the major sports leagues to bar the selection of high school players. The NBA adopted its hardship rule in 1971 and since has expanded its draft to include high school graduates or players 18 years of age. The NHL requires players to be at least 18, as well, and Major League Baseball has long drafted high school players.
That history is on Clarett's side. But Robert Clayton, a partner in the Washington law offices of Epstein, Becker & Green and an expert on sports law, said the NFL has an element of history working to its advantage, too.
"Clarett would argue that the history that's on his side is the history of other professional sports," Clayton said. "And that football as a sport should not be treated differently than basketball, hockey or baseball.
"The NFL says, 'History is on our side because the history of industrial relations in this country has recognized where there is an eligibility limitation that has been negotiated between a company and a union that the courts will exempt that union contract from antitrust scrutiny.' "
Clayton suggested the conflicting opinions of the rule "have been squared up" in district court and that the appeal decision ultimately could come down to a matter of interpretation.
"I think the issues have some clear inroads into the national labor policy," he said. "I think we are somewhat concentrated on this because it involves the notoriety of a sports figure and because of the American culture's passion for football.
"But when you look at the argument the NFL is making and the argument Clarett is making, they are making the basic argument of any laborer or work in industry. ... [Clarett] is saying, 'Look at me as any other worker.' The NFL is saying, 'Treat us like any other industry.' "
Clarett's attorneys essentially have argued that the rule on eligibility was never truly negotiated by the players' union. The NFL insists it was part of the bargaining process.
"What's interesting about this, I don't see the trade union movement jumping behind Clarett because the trade union movement understands the importance of having those contracts and the company not being subject to antitrust scrutiny," Clayton said.
The NFL appears to have a gag order on the Clarett suit because only the league headquarters has addressed the issues. But longtime NFL personnel man and former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt doesn't expect the 6-foot, 230-pound Clarett to be a first-round draft choice in April.
At Ohio State, Clarett rushed for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns in the 2002 regular season, then scored two more touchdowns in the Buckeyes' 31-24 win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship.
"I never thought Clarett was that great a player," Brandt said. "I thought he had the luxury of being on a very good team with a great offensive line.
"From what I know, and I've seen a lot of him, he's not in the top 64 [players coming out]. That's the top two rounds."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.