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Clarett sues NFL for eligibility

Player challenging draft eligibility rule

Until now, the NFL has been able to avoid the white-hot topic of whether talented teenagers coming right out of high school should be allowed to play professionally. Though the issue is not addressed specifically in the collective bargaining agreement, the NFL long has had a rule that states a player is not eligible to be drafted or to play in the league until three years after his high school graduation date.

Maurice Clarett, the talented and sometimes troubled running back from Ohio State, is challenging the rule. His attorneys filed suit in federal court yesterday in New York, claiming the rule violates antitrust law and harms competition.

Clarett, who rushed for 1,237 yards as a freshman and led the Buckeyes to a national championship last season, has been suspended from the team for NCAA violations concerning the acceptance of benefits and lying to investigators.

In his suit, Clarett claims he would have made big money had he been eligible for the draft following his freshman season, that he would be a sure first-round pick. He could be correct there, considering that Miami running back Willis McGahee, despite suffering a major knee injury in that national title game, was still taken in the first round by the Bills.

Clarett's attorney, Alan C. Milstein met with NFL attorneys in Washington Monday to discuss whether Clarett could be eligible for the 2004 draft. He apparently was told no, as Milstein filed suit the next day.

The suit, filed before US District Judge Shira Scheindlin, asks for the NFL rule to be thrown out and Clarett declared eligible for next April's draft or for the NFL to conduct a special supplemental draft even sooner. Under the current rules, Clarett would not be draft-eligible until April 2005.

Experts from around the country are weighing in on the case, and many give the NFL little chance of prevailing. If the league rule is thrown out, the floodgates would open.

Duke University law professor Paul Haagen, an expert in contracts, legal history, and sports law, said, "In the United States, any attempt by competitors to restrain competition in the labor market is regarded by the courts with great suspicion. Unless the restraint falls under a limited number of narrow exceptions, it will be treated as a violation of the antitrust laws."

Haagen said the NFL would have to prove "that its rule falls within the Rule of Reason, and in fact enhances competition, or that it is incorporated by reference in the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the Players' Association and thus is protected by the non-statutory labor exemption to the antitrust laws."

That may be difficult, but when asked a month ago whether the league would win such a suit, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, also a labor lawyer, said, "My feeling as commissioner is that we have a strong case and we will win it."

Yesterday, league spokesman Greg Aiello said, "We do not believe that this lawsuit serves the best interests 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." The NFL also has the backing of its Players' Association. NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw has recommended to Clarett that he stay in school.

While there has been an influx of high school players in the NBA since Spencer Haywood first tested the league's eligibility rules 33 years ago, professional football may require more physical maturity than most high school players have attained. Perhaps only the most highly talented and physically developed high schoolers would be able to make such a jump in a violent sport.

One of the NFL's top strength and conditioning coaches said yesterday, "I don't think more than one or two, if that, could make the jump like that. When we get rookies here who have been in school three or four years, it takes them a good year, sometimes two, of full-time NFL conditioning to be able to compete with the older players on the football field. That's why there aren't many rookies who make an immediate impact, because they need that time for their bodies to mature and to have that NFL conditioning."

The NFL has been able to avoid costly developmental leagues, instead using big-time college football as a developing ground and not having to pay a dime to do it. If there were an influx of younger players in the league, a minor league might have to be created.

BC coach Tom O'Brien said, "There is no question that if he wins the suit, it will change things around in college football. Maybe not at Boston College, because we are still a development program where we need players to stay for four or five years. But it will affect places like the University of Miami, where they have players leave after three years.

"If Clarett wins, it will be different -- players will think they can leave after a year or two. Football is different because it is a contact sport and there is a huge difference between a kid when he is 18 and when he is 20 or 21."

Former Cleveland Browns great Jim Brown told that Clarett could be a pioneer in his sport much like Curt Flood was when he challenged the reserve clause in baseball.

"He understands he can be a pioneer," said Brown. "He wants to help other players. He's told me several times he wants to do something that is bigger than himself.

"He's fighting what seems to be the most powerful organization in the world -- men with political power and the best lawyers."

Mark Blaudschun of the Globe staff contributed to this report; material from wire services also was used.

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