In many regards the saga of Ohio State running hack Maurice Clarett is your average paint-by-numbers NCAA brouhaha. Player is accused of academic tomfoolery and other improper conduct and is suspended from the team. Feeling like a scapegoat, player threatens to transfer and fights back through the press, in this case with the help of Hall of Famer Jim Brown. Soon the verbal warfare escalates to Franken-O'Reilly levels, and it becomes clear that the athlete has likely played his last down for the school.
This is where things get interesting. Were Clarett playing basketball—or any other sport with a professional league—he would have the option of sitting out the season and turning pro. But because players aren't eligible for the NFL draft until they have been out of high school for three years, Clarett, a sophomore, can't be selected until 2005. Clarett has said he may sue the league to enter the draft a year early and, at first glance, he would seem to have an airtight case. After all, common sense tells us that if all other pro spoils welcome players his age, so should football.
But that doesn't mean Clarett could make an easy run to the professional ranks. His opponent, lest we forget, is the NFL, a multi-billion-dollar industry that will fight hard to preserve the age restriction. Why? The stated reason is that very young players are not prepared for the mental and physical challenges of pro ball, and the league may be sincere, not to mention correct, in that assertion. But the present setup is also great for business; football is alone among the big four sports in having a feeder system that provides at least three years of seasoning and creates marketable stars at no cost to the pro division. (Baseball has long had minor leagues; Spencer Haywood successfully sued the NBA for early admission in 1971; and the NHL lowered its minimum age to 18 in 1977.) But virtually no one messes with the NFL on this issue because it would likely be a long and expensive battle. As the NFL's Greg Aiello says, "We are fully prepared to vigorously defend our eligibility rules and are confident in our chances in a court of law."
Clarett's lawyer, however, has a very different view of the possibilities. "It's a simple case," Alan Milstein told SI. "They obviously cannot control the age of the kids that come into the league."
Ah, but the NFL can do just that if it can convince a judge that the three-year rule is actually part of it's collective bargaining agreement with the players' union. Commission Paul Tagliabue is sure it is, while Milstein can argue mat it certainly isn't because there is no explicit language in the agreement about the age rule. NFL Players Association president Gene Upshaw, meanwhile, says that he wishes Clarett would stay in school but is otherwise studiously vague about his position. The fact is, there are good arguments on both sides of the issue, and any legal contest would be a crapshoot. Steve Ross, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law and an expert on sports labor issues, says that if the matter goes before a judge "you cannot possibly predict what decision would be made."
There is one not-too-far-fetched scenario that could give both sides what they want. In it, Clarett would obtain an injunction, forcing the NFL to conduct a supplemental draft just for him (that's been done before), and the NFL would appeal. Two years from now the appeal would be decided in the league's favor. Clarett, by then, would be a couple of seasons into his pro career, and the NFL's eligibility rule would be affirmed. All would be right with the world, at least until the next player with dreams of early stardom—or too many NCAA violations—comes calling.