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Clarett Sues NFL Over Draft

Ohio State running back, suspended for the season, challenges the three-year rule that makes him ineligible for next year's draft. League vows a fight.

September 24, 2003|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Suspended Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett filed suit against the NFL on Tuesday, the morning after his mother and lawyer met with league executives to discuss the player's desire to be eligible for next spring's draft.

Clarett, 19, wants the league to relax its rule that stipulates a player must be out of high school at least three years before he is eligible to be drafted. Clarett is less than two years removed from high school and, as it stands, cannot be selected until 2005.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in New York, claims that it is "almost certain" Clarett would have been selected in the beginning of the first round in 2003 had he been eligible and would have received a contract and bonuses worth millions of dollars. The suit also says the three-year rule violates antitrust law and harms competition by excluding players who have yet to meet that threshold.

Clarett rushed for 1,237 yards as a freshman last season and helped the Buckeyes to a national championship. He was suspended for the season by the school two weeks ago for receiving improper benefits and allegedly lying to investigators about the value of items stolen from a car lent to him.

The suit also states the rule is in place because the league is unwilling to jeopardize its relationship with college football, which "serves as an efficient and free farm system for the NFL."

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue put the three-year rule in place in 1990, shortly after he took the job. He has said the league has solid legal footing when it comes to the rule and is prepared to defend it.

Representing the NFL in Monday's meeting in Washington with Clarett's mother and lawyer, Alan C. Milstein, were Jeff Pash, the league's top lawyer, and Harold Henderson, chairman of the league's management council.

"We expected to have an opportunity to respond after [Monday] night's meeting and are disappointed that we were not permitted to do so," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement. "We do not believe that this lawsuit serves the best interest of Maurice Clarett or college football players generally, but we look forward to explaining to the court both the very sound reasons underlying our eligibility rule and the legal impediments to the claim that was filed."

Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Assn., said last week he believed Clarett should stay in school and would support the league's three-year rule. The union released a statement Monday saying it would take no position on the case, referring to a term of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that says the NFLPA "will not sue or support any suit against the terms of the college draft that are included in the NFL Constitution and Bylaws."

Clarett's lawsuit argues the three-year rule is not enforceable, because it is not mentioned anywhere in the 292-page agreement between the league and union. The lawsuit asks the judge to toss out the rule and make Clarett eligible for the 2004 draft, or require the NFL to hold a special supplemental draft sooner.

Gary Roberts, a Tulane University law professor and antitrust specialist, said that argument is faulty. He pointed to landmark legal decisions in 1989 and 1996 that said anything that qualifies as a term and condition of employment, such as the three-year rule, cannot be challenged by an individual under antitrust law -- even if those terms and conditions are not put in writing.

Roberts said he believed Clarett would lose his lawsuit and said he wouldn't be surprised if a judge threw out the case in a preliminary hearing. But he didn't rule out a victory for Clarett.

"I recognize that there's no legal rule out there that a judge can't get around somehow if he wants to do it bad enough," Roberts said. "The judge is going to have to want to do that very badly."

Even if Clarett were to succeed in getting the rule changed, player agent Leigh Steinberg said, the physical demands of pro football would make a flood of young players highly unlikely.

"This isn't an Oklahoma land rush the way basketball is," Steinberg said. "Those purveyors of doom and gloom who worry about large numbers of players declaring prematurely, failing in pro ball, and going through life without a college degree, might want to focus on the low graduation rate of players spending a full four or five years in collegiate football programs."

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