Clarett Case Stirs Issues Beyond the NFL Draft

Mar 27, 2004

By Robert L. Clayton*
Ohio State sophomore football star Maurice Clarett’s successful challenge of the NFL’s 14-year-old draft eligibility rule almost certainly will give him admission to this year’s draft. The court’s ruling, which effectively will open the draft to other underclassmen as well, also exposes a range of broader issues that high schools and colleges alike will need to address.
Clarett challenged the NFL rule that restricts its draft eligibility to players three years removed from high school. That rule, Clarett’s attorneys argued, was an unreasonable restraint on his ability to earn a living, and violated antitrust law.
While the NFL subsequently asked the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals for a stay, the court is unlikely to grant one before the draft, based on the rationale that a stay would severely harm Clarett’s position by postponing his eligibility for a full year. During that year, Clarett’s physical condition and earning potential could deteriorate, while the NFL would suffer no detrimental effects in the matter.
Should Clarett prevail, as he almost certainly will, the NFL draft will open to thousands of other young football players – including high school players, and college freshmen and sophomores.
Younger NFL Draft Picks?
Some say it’s time the NFL got in line with the rest of sports, such as basketball, baseball, golf and tennis. Most sports observers would say it is only reasonable to allow football players the same kind of competitive access to the professional ranks.
But for high school football players, the Clarett ruling may be less than it appears, given the nature the professional game. A talented high school basketball or baseball player with accuracy, speed and finesse already has many of the skills and attributes required to compete at the professional level. But the truth is, in football there are vast differences between high school, college and professional play. Pro football in fact does require strength, stamina and mental toughness that can be gained in most cases only by maturing and progressing through the ranks.
So, the question is: How many high school players can compete against men who have been hardened by playing experience and seasoned by the rigors of college and professional conditioning and training programs? The answer is: Almost none. Today, only one or two high school players in the entire country would generate truly high interest among pro scouts. So at the high school level, the Clarett case is much ado about very little.
NCAA Rules Apply
Even if large numbers of the youngest eligible players were faced with weighing college and professional options as high school students, there would be no reason for the NCAA to change or alter its rules to accommodate them. NCAA regulations already are in place for any high school student with professional aspirations in any sport — including football.
How high schools deal with the change in NFL draft rules remains to be seen. While high schools may provide talented high school basketball players with a significant amount of advice in the college vs. pro question, cash-strapped high schools are unlikely to expend much additional treasure to advise football players in depth on the issue, given the relative scarcity of potential NFL draft candidates at the high school level.
Nonetheless, high schools will have to react in some way to the needs of talented football players as their sport enters this new era. They will need to accommodate scouts. And they will need to advise their most talented football players on matters related to NCAA rules, recruitment and career options. High school programs also will have to provide some means of educating student-athletes on the sometimes fuzzy issue of street agents – even parents and relatives – who will be energized in their activities by the Clarett case.
As for college programs, they will now clearly be pressed to offer a higher level of guidance on college vs. pro issues well before a student-athlete reaches the three-year mark.
The Bigger Question
Many educators are aghast at the Clarett decision because it extends to football the “no college” culture that has come to pervade high school basketball, and may act to lure football players earlier into the pros — and away from college programs.
At the same time, it is no secret that many high schoolers with an eye to a career in professional sports traditionally have gone to college not to pursue academics, but to make a necessary stop on the way to becoming professional athletes. These players often act like non-students, taking advantage of the perks associated with the protected student-athlete environment, without the accountability imposed on the rest of the student body.
Based on those realities, there are observers who believe that the Clarett ruling will have a positive effect, and may help institutes of higher learning preserve college athletics by ensuring that student athletes truly are an integral part of the student body – just as it says in the preamble to the NCAA rules. The ruling is a positive step, according to this line of reasoning, because it will cause those who do not wish to get an education to go more quickly into professional ball, and reduce the numbers of college players who have no intention of being real students, anyway.
On the other hand, many, if not most, college sports programs would rather have a talented player for a year or two than not at all. Receiver Larry Fitzgerald may have used the University of Pittsburgh football team as a two-year training camp before entering the pros, but the school enjoyed the benefit of having the country’s top receiver.
Society Decides
The Clarett case gives rise to the question of whether colleges have created an artificial environment to meet the needs of their athletes. And the answer is that, yes, they most certainly have.
But colleges also have created that environment to satisfy the public’s insatiable demand for college sports. By accepting and accommodating the real complications presented by multimillion-dollar NFL contracts, colleges work to satisfy the public’s appetite by taking talented athletes when and wherever they can get them – for as long as those athletes choose to stay.
That position may be at odds with NCAA rules designed to “maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the educational program.” But in the end, it is how we — as a society, and as sports consumers– decide to lay down our priorities that will determine how those rules are applied.
* ROBERT L. CLAYTON is a member of the labor and employment practice in the Washington, D.C. office of Epstein, Becker & Green.


Articles in Current Issue