NFL still goal for Clarett and Williams

NEW YORK -- Emerging from an often confusing, sometimes contentious hearing in front of three judges of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last Monday, Michelle Clarett -- whose son, Maurice, has been challenging the ubiquitous power of the National Football League -- was asked how she was handling the whole ordeal.

She uttered two words, which seemed to sum up the reaction of just about everyone who has been on this legal roller coaster for the past four months.

"I'm numb," she said, feeling perhaps at the mercy of the judicial system.

Now that the NFL draft is over, Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams, the Southern California wide receiver who got caught up in this case, are again feeling the same sense of helplessness as they await the final decision of the appeals court -- which could come down in the next few days.

"We can't do anything until we get that opinion from the appeals court," said Mike Azzarelli, the agent Williams hired two months ago when the U.S. District Court threw out the NFL's draft eligibility rules in February, allowing college sophomores to enter the draft.

On April 19 -- five days before the draft -- the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a strongly worded stay of the lower court's ruling. In essence, the appeals court said the NFL was right to regulate its draft, and Clarett and Williams were swiftly and unexpectedly removed from eligibility.

Clarett's attorney, Alan Milstein, filed two emergency applications to lift the stay through the U.S. Supreme Court. Last Thursday, two Supreme Court justices -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens -- rejected Clarett's pleas, closing the door on Clarett and Williams. For now.

Over the weekend, Azzarelli did not want Williams to get caught up in the psychological crossfire of knowing that he was most likely a top 15 pick yet watching the draft on TV, helplessly -- so he sent Williams out of the country on a vacation. Clarett -- perhaps anywhere from a late first-rounder to a third-round pick -- has gone underground, waiting for the next legal move to take place.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Milstein filed a supplemental brief with the appeals court, contending that the NFL violated the spirit of its draft eligibility rule by drafting four 20-year-olds in the first round -- Larry Fitzgerald, DeAngelo Hall, Reggie Williams and Ahmad Carroll. (Actually, there are five. Milstein's brief left out Tommie Harris, who is also 20.)

"Clarett submits these facts to demonstrate the lack of justification for the NFL's claim that its eligibility rule serves to protect younger players who are not ready for the rigors of professional football," Milstein wrote.

Eventually, this case could wind up back in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. But, right now, Clarett and Williams have to play a high-stakes waiting game. And the longer they wait for the courts to act, the more it's going to hurt their chances of putting on an NFL uniform for the 2004 season.

"Nobody is going to touch either one of these guys until this case goes through the last legal hurdle," said one NFC executive who asked not to be named.

The big question is: What will the U.S. Court of Appeals do next?

Williams and Clarett hope that the appeals court upholds the ruling handed down in February by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, who struck down the NFL's restriction that prohibits players from entering the draft until three years after they graduate from high school.

Scheindlin basically decided that the NFL's eligibility rules were a classic restraint of trade, a violation of U.S. antitrust laws -- just like the U.S. Supreme Court found in 1971, when it struck down the NBA's draft eligibility rules in the case of Spencer Haywood. That case opened the door for high school players to enter the NBA, which is still the case.

Surprisingly, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals treated Scheindlin's findings with hostility. In the hearing, the three-judge panel hammered Milstein with questions, using arcane and complicated labor law to break down Clarett's case.

Within hours of the hearing, the three judges issued the stay of Scheindlin's findings, ruling on behalf of the NFL. The judges did not overturn Scheindlin's ruling. But they did attach a strongly worded paragraph with the stay, which gives every indication that they plan to do so.

"[The NFL] has demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits [of this case]," the judges wrote. "And any potential harm done to [Clarett] by granting this motion to stay is sufficiently countermanded by the strength of the other factors weighing in [the NFL]'s favor. [The NFL]'s agreement to hold a supplemental draft for [Clarett] and all others similarly situated also mitigates any harm to the [Clarett] in the event of his ultimately prevailing in this appeal."

What does that mean? Well, first of all, it sounds like the appeals court's opinion is going to come down in favor of the NFL. And, the appeals court has gotten a guarantee from the league that if Clarett and Williams finally win this case -- in the Supreme Court, perhaps -- then they will be eligible for a supplemental draft.

But league officials have made it very clear that there will not be any deal or settlement to hold a supplemental draft for Clarett and Williams -- that they will have to be forced into it by the courts. In other words, unless the courts rule Clarett and Williams eligible for the draft, there will be no supplemental draft for them.

Judge Scheindlin's ruling on behalf of Clarett was simple. She concluded that the NFL eligibility rule had an adverse effect on competition. The NFL, in essence, has a buyer's monopoly in the market for player services in the league. The teams have agreed not to compete for any players less than three years removed from their high school graduation.

Bottom line -- Scheindlin ruled that the NFL's eligibility rules are "a naked restraint of competition for player services because it excludes a class of players from entering the market."

Gregg Levy, the NFL's lawyer, successfully argued in front of the appeals court, however, that the eligibility rule is part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association -- making the CBA what Congress calls "a non-statutory exemption" to the antitrust laws. Gene Upshaw, the president of the players association, agrees with the NFL's position.

Levy argued that the eligibility rule is "a legitimate goal of bargaining." And the goals are twofold -- first, to protect the league's current players from unfair competition. "That's what unions do every day -- protect people in the union from those not in the union," said appeals court Judge Sonia Sototmayor at the hearing.

Secondly, the goal of the eligibility rule is to protect young players from themselves.

In a friend of the court brief, Dr. Jordan D. Metzel, the director of the Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, wrote that "permitting physically and psychologically immature players to play in the NFL would expose them to a risk of injury higher than that to which they are exposed in college and higher than that faced by more mature NFL players."

Metzl wrote that growth plates in the muscular-skeletal system can remain open until the early twenties, and these plates are susceptible to injury during periods of intense growth. Plus, he wrote, muscular strength depends on the level of testosterone in the body, but the peak testosterone levels often do not occur until the early 20s.

Metzl provided data from a study he's done on behalf of the league: Since 1993, college underclassmen entering the NFL are one-and-a-half times more likely than their upperclassmen draftee counterparts to be placed on injured reserve or reserve/physically unable-to-play status during their first NFL season (12.2 percent to 8.3 percent).

Moreover, Metzl found, at some point during their NFL careers, 35.4 percent of the underclassmen who elected for the draft before their senior year, between 1993 and 2003, were placed on injured reserve or given reserve/physically unable-to-play status, which is almost double the percentage for college senior draftees (19 percent).

Which begs this question: Is the NFL being hypocritical by barring college sophomores, but drafting college juniors in record numbers? Fifteen college juniors were drafted in the first round on Saturday -- five of them only 20 years old.

This is what Milstein is arguing in his latest brief to the court of appeals. Clarett is 20, the same age and heavier than Emmitt Smith was when he was drafted in 1990. Mike Williams is also 20 -- and huge -- 6 feet 5, 225 pounds -- much bigger and stronger than Larry Fitzgerald, who is also 20 and was selected as the third pick to Arizona, and Roy Williams, who went as the seventh pick to Detroit.

Milstein says that Clarett would have been drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the first round on Saturday -- if Clarett had been eligible and Steven Jackson of Oregon State had not been ignored by the Cowboys.

As for Williams, he probably would have never made it past the Tampa Bay Bucs, who had the 15th pick in the first round.

If you think the Clarett case involves some complicated legal issues, Williams is in a more difficult predicament.

The day before the draft, Williams withdraw his lawsuit against the NFL. He's waiting, too, for the court of appeals' ruling. Williams only entered the draft because of the lower court's ruling on Clarett's behalf, Azzarelli said. But even according to Williams' own suit, the league made it clear that it could withdraw Williams' eligibility if the court of appeals issued a stay. It did. He was out.

A lot of people observing the case from afar want to know whether Clarett and Williams can go back to college. It's too early to address that contingency. Both are hopeful to prevail in court.

But Clarett has already been notified by officials at Ohio State that they would not be thrilled to have him back. He was suspended for taking gifts from a supporter, then accused of lying to cover it up.

As for Williams -- hiring an agent and taking money from him may be too much for the NCAA to overlook and overcome. And psychologically, it may be too much to overcome to go back to Southern Cal. "He's already crossed the Rubicon mentally," said one person close to Williams. "It may be tough for him to go back."

And, at this point, there are miles of legal wrangling to go before that decision has to be made.

Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN.