The court issues a stay, not a final ruling, on the NFL draft eligibility of college freshmen and sophomores.
By ROGER MILLS
Published April 20, 2004
TAMPA - In the ongoing effort to keep freshmen and sophomores out of the league, the NFL won a critical battle Monday.
A federal appeals court in New York barred former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett from being eligible for Saturday's NFL draft.
Citing a need to "safeguard the NFL from harm and ensure a meaningful review of the appeals process," the three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed a February ruling that granted Clarett, and all underclassmen less than three years out of high school, the right to be drafted.
The court, which said the "NFL has demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits," still must issue a final opinion, which could take weeks.
"We are pleased that the court has issued a stay," NFL executive vice president Jeff Pash said in a statement. "We are grateful for the prompt attention the court has given to this matter and we await its decision on the merits."
The ruling also affects former Southern Cal receiver Mike Williams, expected to be a top 10 pick. The Tampa native and former Plant High star declared his eligibility for the draft only after the lower court's initial ruling.
Monday, Williams filed his own lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan, saying the NFL had issued conflicting statements about his eligibility for the draft, the Associated Press reported. Williams said those statements caused him to sacrifice his college career.
Clarett and Williams have agents and, by NCAA rule, cannot return to college. A total of seven high school players also declared eligibility, but none is considered a draft prospect.
The stay also could affect the draft-day strategy of teams who had their sights set on the star receiver as a first-round pick and on Clarett as a possible second- or third-round pick.
In a draft considered one of the deepest at receiver, the absence of Williams will have a trickle-down effect to teams like the Falcons (No.8) and Jaguars (No.9) who were considered frontrunners to take Williams.
Washington's Reggie Williams, Wisconsin's Lee Evans, Ohio State's Michael Jenkins and LSU's Michael Clayton could see their stock rise a notch or two.
But Bucs general manager Bruce Allen said Monday's ruling won't affect too many draft boards.
"It doesn't change things that much," Allen said. "We're looking at over 300 players right now. If a player is not on it, for whatever reason, we have to move on to another player. If a player gets hurt, like (Oregon State) cornerback Dennis Weathersby (who got shot before the 2003 draft), it affected his draft day status and teams had to (move on).
"(This ruling) doesn't surprise anybody. ... There are still some pending issues, and once those are decided, they are decided. We're focused on those other 300 names."
Clarett couldn't be reached for comment, but his cousin and confidant, Vince Marrow, indicated to the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News the fight is far from over. "We knew this might happen, and all they got was a stay - (the court) didn't rule," Marrow said. "I guarantee you Maurice Clarett will be in the NFL in 2004."
Unlike the NBA and Major League Baseball, which draft from the high school ranks, the more physical NFL has resisted allowing draft eligibility to players less than three years' removed from high school. Under the current rule, only juniors and seniors can turn pro.
But Clarett, who played one season for the Buckeyes, challenged the NFL's policy in court. In early February, U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the NFL's policy was in violation of antitrust laws, thereby opening the door for all underclassmen to enter the draft.
One reason for Monday's ruling is the court's decision that under the stay, Clarett and Williams are not being denied a chance to earn a living. If the court rules in their favor, they would be eligible for a supplemental draft at a date to be determined.
A weighted lottery similar to the one held by the NBA, the supplemental draft gives teams with poor records a better chance to get the pick. It means the Chargers, who have the first pick Saturday, could end up with Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning and Williams.
One other remote possibility could be a return to college. NCAA spokesman Jeff Howard said there could be a loophole for Clarett and Williams to regain college eligibility if their schools petition on behalf to the NCAA Reinstatement Committee.
"The individual facts of each case ultimately will determine whether or not an athlete is reinstated," Howard said.
Reinstated players would have to return gifts and likely would miss a few games.
NCAA president Myles Brand said if the NFL loses the case, there could be a significant effect on college graduation rates.
"Not because of the small number that may be eligible to go to the NFL but because of the literally thousands of want-to-bes who will give up concentrating on their studies, both in high school and college, for that one-in-a-million chance to get in the NFL," Brand said. "And they will be the losers."
USC coach Pete Carroll stressed that the program will not abandon Williams.
"We'll continue to help our guy out, just like we did when he was making his decision," Carroll said.
- Information from other news organizations, including the Associated Press, was used in this report.