Relax, NFL: Kids have right, but not talent to arrive early

February 06, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

U.S. DISTRICT Court judge Shira A. Scheindlin's decision permitting Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett to enter the 2004 draft will not have significant impact on the National Football League, but it will create more unscrupulous behavior among college players and agents as well as more balance in the college game.

No one was really shocked at Scheindlin's decision yesterday. The NFL's ruling that a player wasn't eligible for the draft until three years after completing high school has always been in violation of antitrust laws. After all, this is America. Pop singer Michael Jackson earned a living before he was 15. There have been a number of childhood actors throughout the generations.

So, how could the U.S. courts turn away Clarett, who, as a freshman in 2002, led Ohio State to a national championship?

But this is also the NFL, not the National Basketball Association or Major League Baseball. An 18- to 22-year-old can dominate in those sports, especially in basketball with only five starters. An NFL team has 22 starters, and players rely on strength, speed, size and quickness, but physical and mental maturity are more important than in other sports.

Clarett will have his problems, too, if the ruling is upheld. He believes he could go in the first round of the draft, but most experts have him as a second-round pick. He had problems with injuries in the Big Ten, so you know what's going to happen when he plays with the bigger boys.

That's why this decision won't have much impact on the NFL. We're in the era of the salary cap that allows only a small window for opportunity. There isn't a four- to five-year time frame to develop players, even at such crucial positions as quarterback and receiver. There are some young players who can handle it, like Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was the youngest player in the league last season (now 21).

But he is the exception, not the rule. The Williams sisters may have had success at tennis and LeBron James in basketball at early ages, but there aren't too many Dan Marinos or Steve McNairs in high schools. James can handle the pushing and shoving under the basket, but there aren't many high school tight ends who could handle Ray Lewis cutting their bodies in half after a catch over the middle.

"This opens the floodgates for anybody who wants to come out early," said player agent Angelo Wright. "In theory, there is nothing wrong with that. Everybody should have the right to make that decision. But this game involves too much physical and mental maturity. If a team hits it with a young kid in the draft, great, that will be one out of every 50, 60 or whatever. That's not good odds. I think these teams will continue to evaluate the process intelligently, and in the grand scheme of things, this is really not a big deal."

Well, then why is the NFL appealing yesterday's ruling?

The NFL would have done better by settling out of court, allowing Clarett to enter the draft, and then working out a new draft arrangement with the players association. The settlement may have set a precedent, but at least each individual case afterward would involve its own litigation process and have to stand on its own merits. A lot of players wouldn't have had the perseverance or the money to go through with it.

But league officials believe they can at least appeal this case through the April draft, forcing Clarett to either enter the supplemental draft, or the 2005 draft.

Secondly, Clarett has annoyed NFL officials just as much as he has annoyed officials at Ohio State University. He has had a troubled history there, and yesterday school officials reportedly confirmed that they were looking into a report that a benefactor of Clarett's was gambling while in daily contact with him in his freshman season.

During his suit against the NFL, Clarett brought in Hall of Fame running backs Marcus Allen and Jim Brown as consultants. He was getting more air time than Janet Jackson.

"Honestly, they want to stick it up the kid's shorts because they don't want him telling them what to do with their league," said player agent Tony Agnone. "We all knew the kid was going to win, but apparently the league feels good about its position, and their chances of stalling the process. In a sense, though, this has opened Pandora's box. This is not good for kids. It's gives them a false idea about becoming a professional."

We've all heard nightmare stories about agents offering college players money, cars, clothing, jewelry, etc. If the courts uphold the Clarett ruling, those stories will increase, and so will grubbing agents trying to influence players to leave early. This won't just occur at four-year institutions, but on the junior college level, as well.

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