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Changing the Rules

February 6, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Ohio State football star Maurice Clarett finally got the opening he was looking for. Yesterday a New York federal judge gave the sophomore running back and other high school and college football players the opportunity to jump to the pros. The judge declared the National Football League’s 1990 rule that players must be out of high school for at least three years violates antitrust law and she said “must be sacked.” The 20-year-old Clarett sued the NFL last September to challenge its rule. At a press conference yesterday, he reacted to the news.

MAURICE CLARETT: I was pleased that the rule was brought down. It gives a whole lot of kids an opportunity to choose a different path if they may. Just as well as every other sport.

RAY SUAREZ: The 6-foot, 230-pound Clarett declined to say whether he would enter the April draft. Other sports including basketball, baseball, and hockey have long allowed players to join right from high school. The NFL promised to fight the ruling issuing a statement saying: “We believe today’s ruling is inconsistent in numerous respects with well-established labor and antitrust law, and we will seek review of the ruling in the Court of Appeals.” If the ruling is overturned, Clarett will barred from entering the draft until 2005.

More now about the potential fallout of court decision and the case that sparked it. It comes from sport writer and commentator John Feinstein. John, welcome. Why did the NFL have that rule in place keeping high school and college players out?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, Ray, from a competitive standpoint it’s a good idea to try to protect youngsters from the greed of their families, agents, people who would push them to turn professional, as we see occur frequently in other sports, before they are 20, 21 years old particularly in a sport like football that it is so physical, where the development of your body is so important in terms of your potential to play at the professional level.

It’s very possible you can get hurt playing football or you are not ready physically. So from a competitive standpoint, the rule makes a lot of sense. The question, though, is the legality of the rule.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Maurice Clarett had terrific early career games as an Ohio State Buckeye. How did he end up becoming the test case?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, the reason he became the test case, Ray, is because he was declared ineligible to play football this past season by the NCAA and you are correct as a freshman he showed great potential. He is very big and strong for a young man of his age; he is 6-foot-1-inch, 235 pounds. But even so, he was injury-prone as a freshman at Ohio State. I don’t think there’s any way he would have taken this case to court if not for the fact that he was unable to play college football this past season.

RAY SUAREZ: Other sports have long signed people out of high school or very early in their college careers. When basketball made the switch, how did it change the game and the relationship with the college teams?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, again, go back to the 1970s the Spencer-Haywood ruling, which may go down as being very much the same as what will be known as the Maurice-Clarett ruling. When Spencer Haywood challenged the NBA rule at the time, which said you couldn’t go into the NBA draft until you were four years out of high school. He won that court case.

Since then, as the years have gone by, we now have 30 years to look back on it, we see more and more players turning pro straight out of high school, but even more significant than that, you frequently see players leaving after one or two years of college, and very few of the best players stay in college for four years.

That does two things. The one that’s obvious is it means that a lot of players never graduate. But beyond that it means a lot of players never develop their game at the college level because they’re going straight into the pros, and in effect, having to go through on-the-job training as professionals.

RAY SUAREZ: One director of a large college program said a lot more young men are going to think they are ready for the NFL than really are going to be ready. What do you think?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: I think that’s a very good point. That’s the danger, and that’s what has happened in basketball. You know, you have players like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant who go into the NBA straight from high school and are huge successes and become very wealthy young men. But for every one of those there are young men who come straight out of high school or leave college early who are abject failures who can’t go back to college at that point and who end up kind of wandering around the world looking for a place to play.

I know a lot of football experts are saying today, “Well, the kids will know that they’re not ready to play in the pros and they’ll stay in college for three or four years.” I don’t think that’s going to be true. I think there are going to be a lot of cases where youngsters, particularly quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, defensive backs, those who don’t play the power positions, who play the speed positions, are going to think they are ready and going to be told that they are ready by agents who are eager to prey on them. And that’s going to be, I believe, long term a huge problem for football if this ruling is not overturned.

RAY SUAREZ: Some of the football people who’ve commented after the decision said that all it will take is a couple of really high profile washouts, people who either hurt or never develop their promise to cool some kids’ jets and keep them in college. Does that sound right to you?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: It may cool some kids jets, Ray, but not all kids jets. I mean, again, the NBA has had its share of washouts. Back in the ’70s the first two guys to turn pro were Moses Malone, who became a huge star, and Bill Willaby, who never became anything as a professional.

And yet that didn’t stop the gradual increase to players turning pro younger and younger to the point where a year ago, Lebron James actually considered challenging the NBA rule that says you can’t go in the draft while in high school, and thought about turning pro while he was still in high school. That may be the next step in these sports.

RAY SUAREZ: John, some current players have said, “Well, if these young fellas want to take a shot at the money, that should be their right to do so.”

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, I think legally speaking, based on what the judge said about antitrust, that’s got to be true. The NFL’s defense of the rule has always been that it was agreed to in the collective bargaining agreement. But the case that Clarett’s lawyers made is Maurice Clarett’s not a part of the player’s union and therefore isn’t represented by the players union. So legally speaking, I think the players are 100 percent right that Maurice Clarett should have the opportunity to play professional football.

The question is, in a football sense, is this what’s right for future football players? I would say the answer to that is no. But the courts have spoken, and as with basketball and hockey, football will have to abide, for the moment, by what the courts have said.

RAY SUAREZ: And what of Maurice Clarett himself? What are his chances?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, having missed a year of football, that certainly doesn’t help him. And most of these so-called experts are projecting him to be a second round draft pick — again, because he is injury prone, because he did miss a season, and he is learning to play the position.

I think that regardless of what round he goes in — whether it’s late first, second, third– he will get a good look from some team and will have a chance to be a good, perhaps great, college football player — excuse me, professional football player — but we know if this ruling is upheld, he will be remembered more for what happened in court than whatever happens to him on a football field.

RAY SUAREZ: John Feinstein, thanks a lot.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Ray.