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Clarett's case backed, attacked in pro ranks

The running back had a brilliant freshman year, but there are plenty of questions about whether he belongs in the NFL.

Published September 28, 2003

TAMPA - U.S. District Court judge Shira Scheindlin will decide whether an NFL rule prohibiting a player from joining the league until he is three years out of high school is a violation of antitrust laws and an affront to the spirit of competition and equal opportunity.

In reviewing Ohio State sophomore running back Maurice Clarett's lawsuit filed Tuesday, Scheindlin will rule whether the NFL has grounds to keep Clarett out until the 2005 draft or force it to make him eligible for the 2004 draft or a special supplemental draft.

While the debate hasn't been a major concern for NFL players and coaches, there there appears to be no consensus.

Jets coach Herman Edwards said Clarett, 19, isn't ready for the physical pounding.

"I'm not saying basketball is not physical, but it's a little different (in the NFL) in the fact that guys are a lot more mature and bigger and stronger and it's a physical game," Edwards said. "There is contact every play. When you're a young player, you need to develop."

Players are split on whether Clarett should consider turning pro.

"If teams think he's worthy, they'll draft him," Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "No one knows whether he can or not. There are no guarantees. Yeah, I think I could have played at 19 or 20. But I think I could have matured before my time. He might be the same or he might be different."

Quarterback Brad Johnson was not so sure.

"I'm old school," he said. "I think you should wait until you're at least 20 years old. Do firemen let 18-year-olds work in the fire department? Do police departments let 18-year-olds become officers? (In Tampa, you have to be 21.) I think every kid should go to college."

Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, stands firmly in Clarett's corner.

"I think a man does have an opportunity to earn a living and shouldn't be restricted," Smith told reporters Thursday after the Cardinals practice. "To be honest with you, I think the NCAA has a great racket going, and you can print that one. ... He's a great talent. He's young. He feels like he should do it. Why should he be restricted?"

Here are a few considerations:

What kind of evaluation can be provided on Clarett, who rushed for 1,237 yards in his freshman season with the Buckeyes?

"That's one of the most critical things when it comes to him," said Mark Dominik, Bucs director of pro personnel. "You only have one year of film and one year of experience to talk to his coaches about. How do you really evaluate him on that?"

Clarett's suit argues the NFL's three-year rule cannot be enforced because there is no mention of such a rule in the 292-page collective bargaining agreement between the league and players union.

Issues agreed to by collective bargaining can be exempted from antitrust scrutiny.

The NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL all accept players who have completed high school. Still, the physical maturity required to play in the NFL make it debatable how many players without significant college experience would be considered.

"This isn't an Oklahoma land rush the way basketball is," agent Leigh Steinberg told the Los Angeles Times. "Those purveyors of doom and gloom who worry about large numbers of players declaring prematurely, failing in pro ball, and going through life without a college degree, might want to focus on the low graduation rate of players spending a full four or five years in collegiate football programs."

Clarett, while talented on the field, has had injuries and off-field problems. Ohio State suspended Clarett for one year after determining he broke NCAA rules.

"Obviously, this young man has a lot of things going on in his personal life," Brooks said. "He should deal with those real world issues, issues of everyday life, outside the sports arena. Sports is not the answer to everyone's problems. It's like what Jim Brown said about the NFL draft: "It's a small step in a process of becoming a man.' And those are areas that are important for Clarett."

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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