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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Common Sense Takes Day Off in Clarett Camp

September 28, 2003|Michael Wilbon | Washington Post

This question was put to Kellen Winslow, the Pro Football Hall of Famer, on the topic of Maurice Clarett and whether he should legally challenge the NFL draft eligibility rule. Suppose Kellen Jr., a tight end phenom at the University of Miami, had come home after his freshman year and said, "Dad, I want to challenge the draft eligibility rule and go to the NFL."

Without even blinking, Winslow said, "I would have said, 'Boy, go to your room.' "

Sadly, there's no such wisdom prevailing in the Clarett household. There's nobody around like Winslow with the authority or the influence to convince the kid he isn't ready physically or emotionally to play in the NFL, that he needs to play at least two more seasons of college ball to have any realistic shot at succeeding in the NFL, and that he probably won't even win this lawsuit against the NFL.

That's right, I said probably won't win.

There are alleged experts everywhere out there filling the airwaves, and 80 percent of them are saying Clarett will beat the NFL in court because of Spencer Haywood's victory over the NBA 100 years ago, because the NFL is guilty of restraint of trade, because tennis players and basketball players and everybody else can turn pro at 19 years old and even earlier so why can't he. And they all miss the biggest point of this matter.

The NFL has agreed with its union through collective bargaining to limit access to people three years after they've gotten out of high school. The league didn't unilaterally impose this rule; its management council worked out the details with the union. And collective bargaining agreements, as labor lawyers will tell you, are overwhelmingly not exposed to antitrust challenges. In fact, the terms and conditions of employment are mandatory subjects of a collective bargaining agreement.

David Cornwell, formerly assistant counsel of the NFL and now general counsel of Moorad Sports Management, helped write the rule in 1988. He has represented the league at the highest levels, and currently represents players and agents. He believes the NFL will win. And on the subject of whether Clarett can legitimately claim that he shouldn't be held to a CBA rule he had no say in implementing, Cornwell said, "The law is that the collective bargaining agreement applies not only to those who are employees at the time, but those who become employees during the term the CBA is in effect."

So, Clarett, once he enters the league, can lobby the union to change its stance the next time around, for the next freshman phenom

This continued comparison with Spencer Haywood and the NBA is silly because the NBA and its union never had such a negotiation, though you can bet the owners now wish it did.

And it's not just that negotiated provision that's working for the league and against Clarett. There's this insane notion that Clarett ought to have the right to fail. Is that the highest standard any industry should apply? Come be embarrassed and then be cut loose, with nothing more than a signing bonus and a broken body, if not spirit?

If the NFL rolls over on this, every kid who doesn't want to go to college will be entering his name in the draft the moment he leaves high school. So bet on the NFL fighting as long it has to with its sizable war chest.

Beyond the legal issue, it's also amazing how many players, current and former, think the kid is naive about the physical strength it takes to play in the NFL. Maybe Clarett ought to listen to Redskin linebacker LaVar Arrington, who said on this subject, "If an 18-year-old kid, and that's what he is to me, comes out on the football field with a bunch of grown men, I'm going to try to knock his head off.... Hopefully, his body can hold up and take that. I don't know if mentally he'll be able to take it, but hopefully his body will be able to take it because I would imagine that every guy that plays defense will be gunning to get him just because of all the attention that surrounds him. I think we take it personally, and we take pride in knowing that you have to be a man ... to play out there, not a kid. We don't let kids come out here and play with us, and they don't last long if they do come out here."

It sounds like the NFL would have a reasonable position to impose a restraint, based on nothing more than the physical issues alone.

OK, there are probably a handful of players the last 25 years who would be better suited than Clarett to even attempt this challenge. I'm thinking of Herschel Walker when he was at Georgia, the best college football player in the nation as a freshman. Physically and emotionally, Walker was a man at 18. Maybe Bo Jackson at Auburn, and maybe Marcus Dupree at Oklahoma. But it's a short list. Clarett's a really nice player. I'd like to have him on my team. But is he the best player in the country? Nope. Is he the best running back in the country? No, maybe not even in the Big Ten. So he's not exactly the ideal test case either.

Clarett's in a rush because he didn't want to go to school and probably went to the wrong school in the first place. He's in a rush because he wanted to go straight to the pros like his boy LeBron James. He's in a rush because there are folks around him who want to get paid, who have seen him as a lottery ticket since he turned 15. So the NFL, because Clarett is in a rush, ought to capitulate and take on not just this kid, but everybody who'll rush in once the flood gates are open? At a time when patrons and viewers and sponsors are demanding more standards, Clarett and his supporters want fewer standards.

This is going to be a fascinating and probably divisive battle, one the NFL had to know was coming. One wonders if Team Clarett knows the kid's first game of hardball with the pros is already on.

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