Gavel's sound music to ears of NFL brass

April 23, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

THE HONORABLE RUTH Bader Ginsburg got it right. She opted to leave the Supreme Court out of the Maurice Clarett crusade so the court can decide more important things, like presidential elections. That doesn't mean Justice Ginsburg wasn't wrong.

What will Rush Limbaugh and/or Al Franken have to say about this head-scratching refusal by a judge to overstep her bounds?

An opera-loving, liberal champion of individual rights, Justice Ginsburg let the people down yesterday.

As former Washington running back John Riggins once shouted to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor during a 1985 dinner function: Loosen up, Ruthie, baby.

By refusing to vacate the stay against Clarett, thus rendering Clarett and Mike Williams ineligible for the NFL draft this weekend, Justice Ginsburg allows the NFL to maintain its minor league feeder system, otherwise known as college football, by keeping it stocked with talented underclassmen.

The NFL worries about making young, innocent talent eligible to break its legs in the NFL, especially when said talent can go right on coughing up knee ligaments, clavicles and craniums in the gentler, learning league of the NCAA.

By refusing to rule on Clarett's application, Justice Ginsburg - whose ruling was seconded by Justice John Paul Stevens - has ensured TV revenue will be grand and glorious for both the Bowl Championship Series and the NFL.

The pro league can go on using its veteran union members, whose roster spots are safe against underweight knuckleheads. The NCAA can continue to utilize eager and free labor, otherwise known as "student-athletes," for those wildly popular Saturday games.

It's tough to shake the memory of Clarett smirking during the BCS title game two years ago. The former Buckeye might be a punk, but he isn't completely wrong to acknowledge the exploitative arrangement between colleges and the NFL.

If his was the face of a malcontent, it's not all because he lied and cheated through his brief stint in the NFL's kindergarten. Consider the system.

These are symptoms of the NFL's eligibility restriction policy. These are not the legal or procedural issues on which the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

Legally, Clarett had a plausible case, testing to see if antitrust laws apply to his quest to apply for work in the NFL. There is some vagueness as to how the league instituted its policy and whether it's officially part of the collective bargaining agreement.

"What the NFL and union should do is negotiate specific terms of the policy," said Paul Weiler, the Henry J. Friendly professor of law at Harvard University, author of Leveling The Field: How the Law Can Make Sports Better For Fans.

But a plausible case is not good enough for Clarett. The appropriate legal decision is for the courts to uphold the NFL's right to limit access to its league, based on labor law.

"No one is owed anything. Even if the union disputed the league policy [restricting eligibility], it should be exempt. But the NFL and the union agree," Weiler said.

Still, we could dream.

With the NFL draft set to begin tomorrow and Clarett's eligibility case on her desk, Justice Ginsburg had the ball in the red zone.

She was free of the tackles and the shackles of the self-serving NFL and its union.

She could have scored one for the disenfranchised little guy caught in the middle of two money-making machines, the end zone in sight.

Instead, she punted - which is just as amusing a visual metaphor as one of the diminutive, 71-year-old running the ball.

Clarett wanted the right to be eligible for the draft. Now, he and Williams won't be part of the draft and have "professionalized" themselves right out of college football. No one at Ohio State or Southern California is petitioning the NCAA to get these guys back into the NFL's feeder league.

In that way, Clarett and Williams are harmed; eligible for nothing - at the moment.

The NFL and NBA argue that the exceptional cases of high school graduates who are suitable for the draft are no reason to open the floodgates for all the other yahoos who think they're ready.

But being eligible doesn't mean you're drafted or that you'll stick around. Look at Ryan Leaf. He was so eligible, the Chargers are still reeling from that draft boondoggle.

If some NFL general manager didn't draft Clarett or Williams, the joke's on those two 20-year-olds.

If an NFL team used a pick on one of these guys, then the joke would have been on the NFL.

Maybe the real danger is that these NFL teams don't want to tempt themselves. Williams was a lock to be a first-round pick, which is funny for a 20-year-old that the NFL says isn't ready. The logic is illogical.

The NCAA is likewise illogical. Last week, president Myles Brand predicted a significant decrease in graduation rates if the NFL lost this case. That means the NCAA is attempting to legislate motives and motivation for its "student-athletes," who would be so severely tempted to turn pro, they wouldn't study.

They haven't yet named the planet Brand currently inhabits.

There's merit if the NFL and NCAA's concerns are for the health and well-being of the "student-athletes," but that's not the whole story.

Next time, Justice Ginsburg should run it all the way in.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.