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Archive for Wednesday, September 17, 2003

No winners if Clarett lands in draft

September 17, 2003

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In the courts, Maurice Clarett might win the right to enter the NFL Draft early.

Legally, he might be correct.

But that doesn't mean it is a good idea.

Clarett led Ohio State to a national title as a freshman. He clearly was the nation's top college running back, but NFL rules state that players may not declare for the draft until three years after their high school class graduates.

Clarett will maintain that he's ready for the pros and that he has the credentials to prove it. His lawyers will scream about restraint of trade and how Clarett is being denied his rights.

The NFL will say that, as a private business, the status quo works, so why change? Clarett's lawyers will counter, "Why should the standout running back not be free to turn pro when he wishes?"

They'll talk about the billions the NCAA pockets, the millions the top coaches make and how the NCAA can rule a player ineligible who takes a free McDonald's Happy Meal.

Clarett will be painted as a victim of an oppressive system denying him riches and the right to pursue happiness and Hummers playing for pay on NFL Sundays.

His lawyers might even insist Clarett being suspended for a year by OSU for what the school says are serious violations of NCAA rules is another reason to open the pro doors now. That certainly makes the legal option viable for Clarett, because he has nothing to lose and not much else to do.

Clarett's lawyers will point to the NBA, where LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and others went directly from high school to the pros. They'll insist opening the doors to high school players made the NBA stronger. They can argue Clarett could be the NFL's LeBron James, a marketing magnet before he plays his first pro game.

They'll mention baseball and hockey teams routinely draft players out of high school. The lawyers might conveniently ignore both of those pro sports systems have minor leagues to nurture and to develop those players. Most judges would not be impressed by the distinction, anyway, as it has little to do with legal issues.

The point is, Clarett's lawyers will ask, "Why should the NFL be any different?"

The fact the NFL's method of doing business is best for the majority of the players and the league will not be considered a strong argument. We live in a system that celebrates an individual over institutions, where the law can change with the stroke of a judge's pen.

Judges won't care that the average NFL career is about three or four years, or that the typical NFL contract isn't guaranteed, except the signing bonus. It won't matter that very few high school kids can take the pounding of the league, that pro football really is different from other sports.

For all his physical gifts, Clarett had shoulder problems and knee surgery last season. He missed all of three games and parts of two others. There is a legitimate question about how he would hold up for a grueling 16-game NFL season.

That might be the reason Clarett was thinking about an early pro career in the middle of his freshman season. Better grab all the money you can, while you can. That's the American way, right?

Lost in the argument is that a full college scholarship is a tremendous windfall to most athletes. It's worth at least $75,000 over the five years most need to earn a degree. If Clarett does sue and the NFL does lose, the situation will just be worse, and most players won't be better for it.

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