Draft in 5 days, NFL arguing for Clarett to be ineligible

Antitrust at core of appeal to reverse February ruling

Pro Football

April 19, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The melodrama known as the NFL's eligibility rule rolls back into the courtroom today as the league again attempts to block former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett from this weekend's draft.

A three-judge panel from the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York is expected to hear oral arguments on the NFL's appeal of a lower court decision, which ruled that the league's longstanding eligibility bylaw violated antitrust law.

On Feb. 5, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin overturned the league bylaw that allows only players at least three years removed from high school graduation into the annual college draft.

At stake is the immediate playing future of both Clarett and Southern California wide receiver Mike Williams, as well as the long-term ability of the NFL to keep everyone younger than college juniors out of the draft.

The 2nd Circuit is expected to render a decision - perhaps as early as Wednesday - before Saturday's first round of the draft.

Although representatives for both players have expressed confidence in the outcome, an attorney who represented the NFL in antitrust litigation some 20 years ago believes the appellate judges will rule for the league.

"I expect they're going to reverse Judge Scheindlin," said Gary Roberts, the director of Tulane University's sports law program. "I don't know on what grounds; there are so many to choose from."

From 1976 to 1983, Roberts argued antitrust law at the Washington firm of Covington Burling under Paul Tagliabue, now commissioner of the NFL. It was an era when the NFL regularly lost its antitrust fights. Since that time, however, antitrust law has been undergoing revision. Because of that, Roberts said the NFL stands a much better chance of winning.

"It's a no-brainer," he said. "I think Judge Scheindlin was off her rocker when she decided this. All the cases she was citing were 30 years old or older. Antitrust laws have changed so dramatically the last quarter of a century; she's just wrong. There's no rational way to reach a summary judgment on the antitrust issue."

According to Roberts, the best scenario for the NFL is if the 2nd Circuit decides the league's labor exemption is applicable. "Then the NFL wins the case, Clarett is done, Mike Williams is done," he said.

If the labor exemption doesn't apply, the case would be decided on the merits of antitrust law and any of a number of things could happen.

"I don't believe there's any way the 2nd Circuit will rule that the NFL wins the case on the antitrust issue," Roberts said. "On the other hand, it can't grant a Clarett judgment on the antitrust issue, either. There are too many important issues in dispute.

"What the court of appeals likely will do is reverse the district court decision, remand it back to district court for trial on rule of reason issues."

In that event, Clarett, who brought the original suit, could seek a temporary injunction to gain entry to the draft. Once he and Williams are drafted, they are in the league regardless of any impending court action.

In addition to Clarett and Williams, seven others applied for and were granted draft eligibility. One is a junior college player who would have been eligible anyway. The other six are high school players of varying ages and football experience. None is expected to be drafted.

A loss would send Clarett and Williams into limbo. Their football options would include the Canadian Football League, the Arena Football League or appealing to have their college eligibility reinstated by the NCAA. The Montreal Alouettes hold the CFL negotiation rights to Clarett and the Ottawa Renegades to Williams.

Jim Popp, general manager for the Alouettes, said he thinks Williams might be able to regain his eligibility. "If the NCAA thought it out, it would allow him back because of special circumstances," Popp said.

Williams never challenged the NFL bylaw; he simply applied for the draft once Clarett's court victory cleared the way.

Clarett last played in 2002, when he helped Ohio State to a 14-0 record and the national championship. He was suspended for the 2003 season for accepting improper benefits from a family friend and allegedly lying to investigators.

Attorneys for both sides have submitted written briefs to the appeals court. The NCAA also filed a legal brief supporting the NFL's position to keep both players out of the draft.

The NFL's opinion is that players less than three years removed from high school graduation are not mature enough physically or emotionally to handle the rigors of professional football.

When he appeared at the NFL's scouting combine in Indianapolis in February, Clarett said he didn't think of himself as a pioneer and didn't agree with how he'd been portrayed in the media.

"The way it's painted on TV [is] like I'm arrogant and cocky," he said. "I'm a quiet individual, I don't say too much ever. I lead by example."

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