Bad for business
Clarett, Williams are losers as NFL, NCAA protect monetary interests
Posted: Friday April 23, 2004 5:21PM; Updated: Wednesday April 28, 2004 4:39PM
Let's see if we have this right. Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams are forced to sit out this weekend's NFL Draft because of a league rule barring players from going pro until three NFL seasons have passed since their graduation from high school. And for now, NFL suits enjoy the backing of the courts.
This legal wrangling goes on while American pro soccer banks its future on 14-year-old wunderkind Freddy Adu and the NBA does the same with 19-year-old LeBron James, who never spent a day on a college campus and is deemed in some circles as the best thing to hit the league since Michael Jordan. In case you missed it, the same day King James was grabbing Rookie-of-the-Year accolades back in Cleveland, Clarett was filing an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court in what proved to be a futile bid to get into the draft.
What gives? If you listen to the NFL and its apologists, the league deserves kudos for courageously stepping up to protect unworldly teenagers who may be harmed by over-training or resorting to steroid use. Heck, last time we checked, Clarett is 20 years old. Yet the pitch is these guys are too fragile for the pro game. Not tough enough mentally or physically.
Please don't try to tell me Clarett and Williams couldn't make an NFL roster next fall. How long would they last on the draft board Saturday? Williams has "first-round pick" written all over him, while Clarett would likely go in the second or third round.
So let them take their chances and forgo the play-for-a-scholarship college game, if they like. Not even a draft genius can assign a standard age to when a player is up to the physical rigors of pro ball. The NHL isn't sissy stuff, right? And yet 21-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk and 19-year-old Rick Nash -- both selected No. 1 overall in the NHL draft in 2001 and 2002, respectively -- tied for the league lead in goals scored this season.
Even more comical is the argument that you need to ace a maturity test to suit up in the NFL. Granted, Clarett hasn't distinguished himself off the field, but the kid is a choirboy compared to some of the league's older, supposedly more mature talent.
Consider just a few of the wily NFL veterans who have scratched the police blotter with indiscretions in recent months:
Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Juran Bolden, 32, was placed on three years probation and fined after pleading no contest to felony possession of a stolen vehicle.
Baltimore Ravens' cornerback Corey Fuller, 32, was charged with the felony of hosting high-stakes card games at his house, where there was also gunfire, in January.
New England Patriots cornerback Ty Law, 30, was accused of trying to flee from police after a traffic stop earlier this month.
Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman, 28, pleaded guilty to endangerment following charges he used his Hummer to ram a car carrying his wife, 2-year-old son and babysitter.
"No question, putting 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds out there in an environment like the NBA, NFL and NHL is tempting, but there's certainly no evidence you are not going to get in trouble the older you get," says Daniel Glazer, a New York sports attorney. "It seems (there are) just as many instances of professional athletes getting into trouble who are in their 20s and 30s.''
So what is really behind the decision to block Clarett and Williams from entering the draft? The NFL has a sweet, low-cost deal with the NCAA to serve as the equivalent of a minor league. If the NFL swings open its doors wider and drafts young talent, it risks spending more time, energy and money developing players. And the last thing Paul Tagliabue & Co. desire is to get stuck having to groom talent like Major League Baseball does.
Another conflicted party in this ongoing saga is the NCAA hierarchy. The organization obviously has tired of high school and college basketball underclassmen bolting early for the NBA. So when the Clarett case hit the legal system, the NCAA filed a brief in support of the NFL, urging the courts not to allow younger players into the draft.
It's fascinating to find the NCAA in one breath toughening academic standards, both entrance and eligibility requirements, and then jumping in bed with the NFL to limit the players' options. If a kid can't cut it in college, where is he to go? Or what about those who tire of the amateur charade and desire to enter the pro draft? Their only choice is to head north to Canada, I suppose.
NCAA lawyers are also fighting to prevent Colorado wide receiver Jeremy Bloom from pocketing endorsement money from his pro skiing career. Yet the organization has its own marketing deal with EA Sports, which allows Ohio State and Southern Cal to tee it up in the video game "NCAA Football 2004'' -- bringing a virtual Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams into your living room.
So for the time being, the NFL and NCAA lawyers are winning the fight to protect their business interests. And that doesn't seem right.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.