U.S. judge opens NFL to younger players, including Clarett and Fitzgerald

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The rigid rules about who can play in the National Football League cracked yesterday, and the game may have changed forever.

Kathy Willens, Associated Press
Maurice Clarett smiles as he listens to attorney Alan Milstein, left, at a news conference yesterday in New York after a federal judge opened the door for Clarett and other teenage football stars to turn pro.
Click photo for larger image.
Columnist Ron Cook: Like it or not, you'll live with Clarett rule

First Maurice Clarett, the troubled prodigy who graduated from high school less than two years ago, won a federal lawsuit that makes him eligible for the NFL draft in April. League executives immediately promised to appeal the decision.

But just 10 hours after the NFL denounced the Clarett ruling as wrongheaded, it decided that another college sophomore, the University of Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald, was eligible to turn pro immediately.

The NFL says the cases of Clarett and Fitzgerald are different, but the result is that the two 20-year-olds probably will be millionaire professionals before the season kicks off in September.

Clarett attacked the NFL's employment standards as arbitrary and U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin of New York agreed. She said the NFL had wrongly barred Clarett and other young players from seeking jobs in the league.

Only Clarett sued the NFL over its rule that a player cannot be employed unless he has been out of high school for at least three years. But Scheindlin's decision was broad enough that it could allow players fresh from high school to enter the NFL.

Jeff Pash, the league's chief in-house lawyer, said in a conference call last night that the NFL had not decided whether to seek a stay of Scheindlin's ruling. But Pash said the league will appeal, a process that could take several months.

"I think there's a good chance to ultimately have the ruling reversed," he said.

Christopher Barth, Associated Press
The NFL may be more eager to see Larry Fitzgerald in an NFL jersey than Clarett, now that he appears to be eligible to enter the draft.
Click photo for larger image.

Soon after he spoke, the NFL welcomed Fitzgerald into the April draft, when teams pick the cream of the crop from the college ranks.

Fitzgerald worked his way into the pros by taking the NFL to the negotiating table instead of a courtroom.

His lawyer asked the league to grant Fitzgerald an exception so he could enter the draft this spring, a year earlier than NFL rules specified.

Fitzgerald originally attended a Minnesota high school, where his classmates graduated in spring 2001. He did not receive a diploma then, electing to attend prep school so he could improve his grades before accepting a football scholarship to Pitt the following year. But Fitzgerald maintained that he had enough credits to graduate from high school three years ago, and said the NFL should open its doors to him.

It did just that.

Fitzgerald declined to comment last night. His father, a Minneapolis sports editor, said he probably will meet the media Monday.

A wide receiver, Fitzgerald finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting this season, the best finish ever by a sophomore. Well-spoken, poised and blessed with talent, he received nothing but favorable publicity. By contrast, a certain animosity followed Clarett. He started at running back as a freshman on Ohio State's 2002 national championship team. Even then he talked of quitting college and suing his way into the NFL.

Clarett grew up poor in Youngstown, Ohio, and did not adjust nearly as well to college as Fitzgerald did. His troubles began in the classroom and extended to his personal life.

The New York Times reported last summer that Ohio State had allowed Clarett to take an oral exam after he walked out of a midterm test.

Soon after, the National Collegiate Athletic Association began investigating Clarett's claim that more than $10,000 in CDs, stereo equipment and clothing were stolen from a car he borrowed from an Ohio dealership. Clarett eventually was convicted of a misdemeanor for falsifying a police report about the theft.

Ohio State suspended him for the season. While sidelined, Clarett sued for entry into the NFL.

Scheindlin found his case compelling. She ruled that the league's eligibility rule wrongly excluded all players in his position from selling their services to the only real buyer -- the NFL.

Pash said the ruling was so sweeping that it could open the doors to any number of young players who think they're good enough to turn pro.

If the ruling stands, he said, the NFL will not be damaged, but many young players could be.

"The people who will be hurt the most are players who for one reason or another try to make the jump when they're not ready," he said.

He added that the NFL's rule blocking younger players was good for the game. "It's perfectly clear that players who stay in school have longer careers. It's a benefit to the player. It's a benefit to college football."

Critics of the NFL's eligibility rule said it denied qualified players the right to work.

One of the most outspoken was Spencer Haywood, who in 1971 won a U.S. Supreme Court victory that demolished the National Basketball Association's eligibility rules. Haywood, a college All-American at the University of Detroit, sued the NBA in a case strikingly similar to Clarett's. The NBA policy barred players who had not been out of high school for four years.

Haywood said such rules were dictated by money, not by what's good for young people. He pointed out that Joe Nuxhall pitched in the major leagues at age 15, during World War II, and that golf and tennis stars can make millions as teenagers.

"Only football and basketball -- the big revenue-producing sports for colleges -- instituted rules about when you could turn pro," Haywood said in an interview.

Dan Rooney, chairman of the Steelers, said Clarett's win in court could cause problems for countless college students who overestimate their football skills.

"This ruling is concerning because it could create situations that possibly would limit educational opportunities for young men," Rooney said in a statement. "College educations are so important for social, intellectual and maturity development, as well as from the athletic perspective. This ruling could thwart those opportunities."

NFL lawyer Pash did not mention Haywood's case yesterday, but he pointed to a number of football rulings that, he said, make Scheindlin's decision appear "legally erroneous."

Statistical evidence, he said, showed that the three-year rule did not deny players the right to work. Rather, he said, it created "longer, more lucrative careers" because players with college degrees tend to survive longer in the NFL.

If the NFL does not obtain a stay of the judge's ruling, Pash said, Clarett likely will be drafted by an NFL team in April. At that point, the NFL would not try to derail his professional career.

But, Pash said, it would persist in its appeal to overturn the court ruling and block other players from following his lead.

In her ruling, Scheindlin suggested that the NFL revamp its eligibility rules by focusing on each player's physical and psychological maturity.

She rejected the league's justifications for its existing system, saying they "boil down to the same basic concern: younger players are not physically or mentally ready to play in the NFL."

Scheindlin said the NFL does not eliminate prospects based solely on height or weight, nor should it make employment decisions based only on age.


Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.


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