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ISSUE 117 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 5/7/2004

NFL draft rules are here to stay

By Joel Stjernholm
Contributing Writer

Friday, May 7, 2004

Blocked by a court of law from entering the National Football League (NFL) draft, and unlikely to be eligible to return to the college ranks, former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett is in serious trouble.

At risk of never playing another down of competitive football, Claretts once-promising future is now uncertain. Beyond the flashy press conferences, lawyers, agents, criminal charges, and legal nuances that have defined 20 year-old Claretts life exists an underlying question of fairness: should the NFL prevent a player, who, by most standards has proven himself to be an NFL-caliber player, from competing professionally?

Claretts position is reasonable. Claretts attorneys have maintained that NFL regulations preventing players from going pro until three years after graduating high school violates pertinent anti-trust law. The NFL is the only major American sport that requires its players to have graduated from high school at least three years prior to competing professionally.

The National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Hockey League (NHL), and Major League Soccer (MLS) all permit younger players to compete. Furthermore, in each of these sports, many players who enter the respective leagues at a young age have excellent careers.

NHL legend Wayne Gretzky entered the league at age 18 and left as the games all-time leader in points and goals. NBA all-star Kevin Garnett, who was recently selected as the leagues MVP, played his first professional game at age nineteen. MLSs DC United recently signed Freddy Adu to a record $500,000 a year contract, making him Americas youngest professional athlete at only fourteen years of age. There is a clear precedent in major league sports for allowing talented players to enter professional competition at young ages.

Additionally, forcing players to wait increases the likelihood that they will be injured in collegiate competition before signing an NFL contract. Worth millions healthy, players who sustain major injuries in amateur play are often disregarded by professional teams. Those who are drafted or signed are worth considerably less because their injuries present a significant liability to NFL executives.

Despite the compelling argument in Claretts favor, NFL regulations will not, and should not, be altered anytime soon.

Rejecting Claretts legal argument, the Supreme Court found NFL regulations to be consistent with anti-trust law. In doing so, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of an Appeals Court, who also determined the regulations to be legal.

Additionally, there are fundamental differences between NFL football and other professional sports.

Professional hockey and baseball teams maintain minor league systems to develop young players, preparing them for professional play. The speed and physical nature of professional football also significantly increases the likelihood of player injury. Players who have not been adequately exposed to the speed and intensity of collegiate competition face a heightened risk of injury.

Referring to the speed and physical intensity of the NFL, former Heisman Trophy winner and current New York Giant Ron Dane warned that moving to the NFL is the toughest step in football development, and urged Clarett to spend two more years at Ohio State.

It is not in the best interest of any player, Dayne said, to enter the NFL too hurriedly. Talented though Clarett may be, unless he first becomes accustomed to collegiate competition, his NFL tenure will likely be brief and painful.

Under current NFL rules, which allow players to appeal their eligibility given special circumstances, Clarett may still be permitted to play. Minneapolis native and Heisman runner-up Larry Fitzgerald, who had graduated from Holy Angels but enrolled in prep school prior to playing for only two years at Pittsburgh, qualified for the NFL draft under this exception.

Clarett could argue that, given the success of his case in District Court, he expected to be eligible for the draft, and therefore took actions that eliminated his amateur status, preventing him from re-entering collegiate football.

Whether or not Clarett will appeal for eligibility, and the extent to which the league will be receptive to his appeal, is to be determined. While Claretts future is vague, the future of NFL eligibility rules is certain; confirmed by the Supreme Court and favored by the majority of coaches, players, and NFL administrators, eligibility rules will, and should remain unchanged into the foreseeable future.

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