NFL granted expedited appeal on Clarett ruling
Updated: Wednesday March 31, 2004 1:53AM
By Don Banks, SI.com
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The NFL has taken a key step toward what it hopes leads to a reversal of last month's district court ruling that made sophomores Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams eligible for April's draft.
A three-judge Federal Court of Appeals panel in New York on Tuesday scheduled an expedited hearing of the NFL's appeal on the merits of the original order by U.S. District judge Shira Scheindlin to be held April 19 or April 20. The hearing will occur before the April 24-25 draft, meaning that if the NFL wins that ruling or is granted a stay, Clarett and Williams will in all likelihood be blocked from joining the league in 2004.
Clarett is the Ohio State running back who challenged the league's draft rules, and Williams is a receiver from the University of Southern California who declared for the draft after Clarett was ruled eligible.
"We think this is a very positive development,'' said Pash from the site of the league's annual meeting at The Breakers hotel. "What the Clarett side had wanted was to get him through the draft and avoid at all costs having to put their arguments to the appeals court, giving the appeals court a chance to review this opinion. And now that will happen, which is what we wanted to happen.
"And it's also quite unusual for a court to impose such a quick schedule. I think it's an indication, along with the time they spent today, of the seriousness with which the court of appeals is taking this matter and the seriousness with which they are considering the arguments we put to them as to why [the] district judge got this case wrong. ...
"There is a very substantial chance that [those players] will not be in the draft. But the key thing is they're going to give us a very prompt hearing.''
The league was requesting a stay of Scheindlin's order, but instead the appeals court granted an expedited hearing, giving the NFL a pre-draft forum to argue why sophomores should not be draft eligible.
"Under normal legal ground rules, it would probably be the case that if the court decided the case on the merits and ruled in our favor, then they would not be entitled to be in the draft,'' NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said.
Scheindlin issued her ruling on Feb. 5 that the NFL had no right to bar players from the draft who are not at least three years removed from high school.
"The court heard arguments for approximately one hour, which is really quite extraordinary on a matter like this,'' Pash said. "Usually on a merits appeal, you're lucky to get 10 minutes a side.
"[In the appeal hearing], the court will consider two questions: whether to put a stay into effect at that point and whether to affirm or reverse the order of the trial judge that declared Mr. Clarett eligible for the draft.''
Pash said that if the NFL receives a stay of Scheindlin's ruling before the draft but it's later overturned and the trial court's ruling is upheld, the league would make Clarett and Williams eligible for a supplemental draft later this spring, within 10 days of the court order.
"Whoever loses [the appeal hearing] would have two [further] options,'' Pash said. "One, you could ask for a hearing before the full court of appeals, which would be all 12 judges. That's not granted very often. In either case, you could then ask for the option of the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.''
In its appeal, the league has argued the district judge's ruling threatens the livelihood of all NFL players and said the decision is "almost certain to be reversed.''
The NFL wrote: "For as long as this decision remains outstanding, young athletes, including adolescents, will be encouraged to put at risk their health ... their education and their best prospects of gaining the necessary skills and experience for a career in football or elsewhere -- with potentially tragic consequences for themselves and society.''