Court bars young players from entering NFL draft

Appellate ruling a setback for Clarett, Williams in '04

April 20, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

With the draft clock running, a federal appeals court in New York issued yesterday a stay that likely will prevent former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett and Southern California sophomore receiver Mike Williams from playing in the National Football League next season.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals effectively nullified a decision by District Judge Shira Scheindlin in February that overturned an NFL bylaw banning players who are not three years removed from high school graduation.

The NFL has held that players younger than college juniors are not mature enough physically or emotionally for pro football.

Scheindlin's decision would have sent Clarett and Williams into this weekend's NFL draft.

But a three-judge panel in the appellate court issued the stay only hours after hearing oral arguments.

The judges concluded that if they ultimately decide in Clarett's favor, he still could join the NFL through a supplemental draft this summer.

FOR THE RECORD - This story has been corrected for the archive. See microfilm for the original wording.

They also said the NFL "demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits" in its written briefs and oral arguments.

It was unclear last night what course of action Clarett's attorney might take.

Clarett could petition the appeals court for a full-court hearing on the case or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Representatives for Williams, who did not participate in the original lawsuit, indicated they would file their own suit in federal court in New York, saying the NFL has issued conflicting statements about draft eligibility when it opened the door to all ages.

In the wake of yesterday's expedited hearing, two legal experts predicted an NFL victory when the appellate court renders a verdict, probably in a few weeks.

"This is a major NFL victory today," said Robert Clayton, an attorney for the Washington firm of Epstein, Becker and Green, who has specialized in sports law. "I think the NFL is going to end up prevailing on the issue."

Gary Roberts, the director of the sports law program at Tulane University in New Orleans, was even more emphatic.

"The only thing we can predict with almost certainty is that these two guys won't be in the draft this Saturday," said Roberts, an antitrust lawyer for the NFL in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"We can also predict, not with certainty but with a high degree of confidence, that when the merits decision does come down, it will reverse the district judge's opinion."

The appeals court said it stayed Scheindlin's previous ruling because it felt the NFL was more at risk by allowing underclassmen into the draft than the players were by joining the league now.

The court said any potential harm to Clarett would be lessened by the NFL's ability to hold a supplemental draft if the running back eventually won the case.

At least one attorney questioned the logic of that ruling.

"The court seemed to suggest that the NFL would be irreparably harmed if Clarett and Williams went into the draft," said Matthew J. Mitten, a law professor and director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

"To me, how are they going to be irreparably harmed when just a couple of players go into the draft? No one is going to draft someone who isn't going to be able to play in the NFL. Assuming Clarett and Williams are good enough, how is the NFL harmed?"

Williams was viewed as a likely top-15 choice in Saturday's first round after helping USC to a share of the national championship last season.

Clarett helped Ohio State to the national title in 2002 as a freshman, but was suspended last year for accepting improper benefits from a family friend and allegedly lying to NCAA investigators about it.

NFL: `We are grateful'

Jeff Pash, the NFL's executive vice president, said in a statement: "We are grateful for the prompt attention the court has given to this matter, and we await its decision on the merits. Pending that decision, Maurice Clarett, Mike Williams and the others who declared for the draft based on the earlier district court decision are ineligible for this weekend's draft."

On the coattails of Clarett's victory in district court, Williams and seven other players of varying high school and junior college experience were approved for the draft.

Because Clarett and Williams have hired agents, they would need an exemption from the NCAA to have their college eligibility reinstated. It's not certain either player would seek to be reinstated, however.

"We don't know yet if this is a permanent situation," USC coach Pete Carroll said in a statement. "But it is unfortunate that it continues to turn back and forth for those guys. They don't know where they stand.

`Nothing definitive'

"We'll continue to help our guy out, just like we did when he was making his decision. There are a number of steps still to go. But until it's official, there aren't any steps to take. Nothing definitive has been declared by the NCAA."

Steve Snapp, associate athletic director for media relations at Ohio State, said the university would have to file an appeal to the NCAA to have Clarett reinstated.

"When he declared for the draft, that process was put on hold," Snapp said. "Right now, it's in limbo."

If they can't play in the NFL, one option for both players is the Canadian Football League. The Montreal Alouettes own the negotiating rights to Clarett, and the Ottawa Renegades to Williams.

Sun staff writer Don Markus and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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