By Skip Bayless
Page 2

You're rolling your eyes, shaking your head, wondering how in the world this guy could have fallen this far this fast.

He was wearing a bulletproof vest? You're kidding. Four guns and a bottle of vodka in his SUV? No way. He was within a mile of the home of a woman scheduled to testify against him for armed robbery? Creepy.

He even had made what sounded like last calls to people he admired? Really creepy.

You're wondering how Maurice Clarett could have gone from being so good as an Ohio State running back to being so bad off. You're wondering how he could have been so … incredibly … stupid. But now that you've seen the video of all his loaded guns, you have no more sympathy for what's looking like nothing more than an uncommon criminal.

But maybe you should have a little.

Maurice Clarett
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Clarett scored two TDs in Ohio State national championship victory over Miami.

Maybe Clarett was a victim of a shockingly unfair and un-American NFL system that somehow keeps players from entering its draft until they've been out of high school for three years.

Maybe, if Clarett could have gone straight from carrying Ohio State to a national championship as a freshman into an NFL backfield the next year, none of this would have happened. At least, maybe he wouldn't be facing up to 26 years in prison. Maybe he wouldn't stand accused of armed robbery in an alley behind the Opium Lounge. Maybe the cops wouldn't have had to chase down his SUV the other night by blowing out its tires with road spikes, then have to forcibly subdue him after his Kevlar repelled their stun guns.

Maybe -- no, surely -- he wouldn't be behind bars if he had been allowed to play pro football after one year of college.

After all, his Ohio homeboy LeBron James was able to enter the NBA draft right out of high school. Baseball drafts high school kids. So does hockey.

But the NFL still gets away with protecting its free feeder system, college football, the big-stage proving ground that saves the NFL from risking millions and millions more than it already does on draft choices. Imagine NFL teams having to make high-dollar decisions on the country's best high school running backs and quarterbacks. Imagine them having to project the greatness of physically and emotionally immature 18-year-olds at every position.

Ain't that America.

Of course, the age-old, stick-in-the-mud argument is that kids aren't ready for the NFL or NBA at 19 and that most baseball draftees at least spend four or five years growing up in the minor leagues before hitting the bigs.

Save these kids from themselves, you say. Make 'em go to college and get an education the way you did!

Give me a break, Gramps. And give Clarett one.

Some 18-year-olds are good enough to play pro football. Some have no interest or business in college. Some wouldn't get into or stay in college if it weren't for schools needing gifted football players to win bragging rights for major donors.

Some like Clarett.

You say he wasn't ready for the NFL after his freshman year. You say he couldn't even stay healthy playing college football. You say that he was born a bad apple and that he would have turned just as rotten as a rich-and-famous NFL star as he appears to have now.

I say you're wrong.

Clarett was a big, strong, fast 19-year-old who punished Big Ten upperclassmen and scored two touchdowns -- including the game winner from 5 yards out -- in Ohio State's 31-24 Fiesta Bowl upset of 17-point favorite Miami. Running backs who can dominate that level of college talent are the best bets of any position to make it in pro football. Great running backs aren't taught, they're born.

Clarett had all the makings of a great running back. Soon after that Fiesta Bowl, I asked Jim Brown, who was advising Clarett, how good Clarett could be in the NFL. And Brown chuckled that deep chuckle of his and said, "How good was I?"

That's how good.

Predictably, Clarett ran into problems at Ohio State. Yes, he has some thug in him, some "street." Yes, with LeBron able to command millions from Nike before he had graduated high school, Clarett wanted a little compensation for making all those millions for Ohio State. Maybe he got a little. Maybe he deserved a lot more.

But once reports of this compensation began to leak into the media, Ohio State predictably wanted nothing more to do with Clarett. It had its national championship. It did not want NCAA probation.

So Brown and several other people far smarter than Clarett encouraged him to challenge the NFL draft rules in court. He did. He won.

District judge Shira Sheindlein basically laughed the NFL's lawyers out of her courtroom. She basically said the NFL was denying Clarett his basic American right -- the opportunity to earn a living, to succeed or fail in pro football after no more than one year of college.

Clarett briefly was hailed as a crusader, a pioneer, college football's Curt Flood.

But of course, the big, bad NFL took its case to appeals court and won. And eventually, the Supreme Court upheld that decision. The NFL didn't have a better argument than Clarett did, but it had better lawyers and more influence. He would have to sit out two full years before he could enter the draft.

Two … long … years.

And of course, a kid without much of a work ethic got fat, lost his football edge and his way, was lucky to be drafted in the third round by Denver's Mike Shanahan, then failed quickly for all the world to ridicule.

This was like tossing a lighted match on his alcohol-soaked demons. Down, down Clarett spiraled toward Tuesday night.

If he had been able to go straight into pro football, and he had landed with the right coach and system, Maurice Clarett would have turned out to be one of the NFL's barely controllable, very successful thugs. Maybe he would have had a few brushes with the law -- a DUI here, a nightclub fight there.

But nothing like this.

Maurice Clarett belonged in pro football three years ago.

But now, you're right, he belongs in jail.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.