While still fighting vigorously to eliminate the NFL practice of keeping talented young college players from entering the league, Maurice Clarett has found another angle that could get him into the 2004 April draft: The league's own rule.
When the rule was adopted in February 1990, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue issued a press release saying players could enter the draft only after "three full college seasons" had elapsed since their high school graduation. Over the past decade, the notion that players must wait three years has become widely accepted.
However, as noted by Clarett's attorneys, the formal language of Section 12.1(E) of the bylaws is: "For college football players seeking special eligibility, at least three NFL seasons must have elapsed since the player was graduated from high school."
Clarett graduated from high school early, on Dec. 11, 2001. That's eight weeks before the 2001 NFL season concluded, including the playoffs. So if one includes the league's 2001 season along with the 2002 and 2003 seasons, Clarett should be permitted to enter the upcoming draft, his attorneys contend.
"In Clarett's case, he would be ineligible under the press release rule but eligible under the Rule as actually drafted by the NFL," wrote Clarett's four-person legal team led by New Jersey anti-trust lawyer Alan Milstein.
The NFL, in its response before Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, does not dispute the actual language of the bylaw as quoted by Clarett's attorneys. But the league does take issue with the definition of the term "elapsed," which it says means the end of a season that began after a player graduated. Besides, the NFL argues, Tagliabue, as commissioner, has the right to interpret NFL rules in whatever manner he wishes.
"So Mr. Milstein is telling the commissioner that he didn't interpret our own rule correctly," said Greg Aiello, NFL spokesman.
Clarett, who led Ohio State to the national championship as a freshman running back in 2002, sued the NFL in September after Ohio State officials declared him ineligible to play this season for alleged violations of NCAA rules.
His lawsuit contends that the NFL uses the early-entry rule as a way to avoid the farm-system costs that Major League Baseball and other leagues must incur to develop players. It argues that "college football is a willing partner in this cozy arrangement as it generates millions of dollars for the colleges without their having to incur the expense of player salaries.
"Players who are otherwise able to compete with the best in their profession must bide their time on the farm working for nothing," the papers said.
Clarett's lawyers note that no other professional league has such a restrictive rule.
In its most recent motion, the NFL agrees that Clarett, as a running back coveted by pro teams, has been harmed by the league policy. Instead, the league has chosen to argue the case more narrowly on legal precedents in anti-trust law, adding that the use of its salary cap, as collectively bargained by the union, means that the league in this case is exempt from federal law as it speaks to unfair restraint of trade.
"[Clarett] has not alleged, and could not possibly prove that the NFL's eligibility rule has an adverse impact on competition in the relevant market, the market for professional football players' services," the NFL lawyers wrote.
The NFL said Clarett's claim amounts "to an allegation that the eligibility rule will enable another player to secure a roster position and compensation that, in plaintiff's view, should be his own."
Repeating assertions made by NFL offiicials over the year, the league wrote in court papers that the purpose of the rule is to protect young players from the hazards of professional football. To support its argument, the league submitted an affadavit by Dr. Jordan D. Metzl, medical director of the Sports Medicine Institute of the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, who suggested that a less restrictive eligibility rule would promote steroid use and other "risky behavior" among young athletes who lack the strength or speed to compete against older, NFL players.
But the NFL also conceded that its rule was not just in place for altrustic reasons. Their league wrote that one reason for the rule was to keep NFL clubs from paying for the costs of injuries while young players are being developed. Unlike top baseball or hockey prospects in a professional minor-league system, college football players rarely have financial assurances if they suffer career-ending injuries -- the exception being those players with special insurance policies.
Clarett's lawyers note that Clarett will be eight weeks shy of his 21st birthday at the start of the 2004 NFL season, and that at the start of last season there were eight players in the league who were 20 years old. Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, was 20 when he was drafted in 1990, and "weighs less and is shorter than Clarett," they wrote. At six-feet and 230 pounds, Clarett already is as large or larger than Hall of Famers Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Gale Sayers were as NFL players.
Compared to the top 20 rushing leaders after the fifth week of the 2003 NFL season, Clarett weighed as much as or more than 17 of them and was as tall or taller than 15 of them.
"The NFL's purported benevolent objective of protecting players from injuries in NFL games is disingenuous," Clarett's lawyers wrote. "The NFL has no eligibility criteria for size, weight, strength, or maturity."
The league, which has told Clarett he is not eligible for the NFL draft until 2005, has asked that the case be tossed out. The judge is expected to rule by Feb. 1, in time for Clarett to begin preparing for the upcoming draft.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.