Ruling could keep Clarett, Williams out

NEW YORK -- A federal appeals court will hear the dispute over whether Maurice Clarett can enter the NFL draft less than a week before the draft takes place.

The NFL on Tuesday tried to convince a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that it should block Clarett's entry by staying the effect of a lower court judge's ruling that he be allowed in the April 24-25 draft even though the former Ohio State running back is only two years out of high school.

The appeals panel instead agreed to set oral arguments for April 19 and suggested it might immediately rule whether Clarett can enter the draft, with a written ruling to follow explaining its reasoning.

NFL lawyer Gregg Levy told the appeals court he was satisfied with the plan.

"We want a decision before the draft. That's what's important to us," he said.

Added NFL chief counsel Jeff Pash, speaking at the NFL meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., "We are very optimistic. We think it is a positive indicator of the seriousness with which the court of appeals is taking the argument."

Pash said if the court rules in the NFL's favor before the draft, Clarett, Southern California sophomore Mike Williams and seven others would not be included.

Clarett's lawyer, Alan Milstein, convinced the appeals court not to stay the effect of the lower court ruling Tuesday, saying such a ruling would cause NFL teams not to take his client as seriously before the draft.

"They did not issue a stay," Milstein told The Associated Press. "They set forth an expedited briefing schedule. Nothing happened today that was unexpected. The court is just doing what it needs to do to work hard and get Maurice in the draft -- and with plenty of time to do it."

Milstein also rejected the NFL's suggestion that Clarett would be unharmed if he was kept out of the draft by a stay, then permitted to enter a supplemental draft if the appeals court eventually rules in Clarett's favor. Milstein said Clarett would lose leverage to negotiate a contract, as well as practice time and time to learn his new team's playbook, if he were not drafted in April.

Clarett announced his intention to enter the draft after U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in February tossed out a league rule that a player must be out of high school three years for draft eligibility. She said the rule violated antitrust law.

The NFL's argument is the league and the NFLPA collectively bargained the three-year requirement for draft eligibility. Clarett's attorney contends that high school and college players are not part of the collective agreement until they sign a contract and thus have no voice in those rules.

Normally, it takes the Appeals Court nine to 12 months to hear a case, but ESPN.com's John Clayton says Tuesday's ruling shows an urgency about hearing the merits of the case.

After Scheindlin's ruling, the NFL extended the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft to March 1.

Pash said Tuesday that if the league gets a stay, then loses the appeal, it would hold a supplemental draft for Clarett and the others within 10 days of that decision. Those players already have forfeited their college eligibility.

Pash is optimistic.

"I think there is a substantial chance he [Clarett] will not be in the draft," he said. "There have been four or five cases like this over the last 15 years, and the court has always ruled in favor of the sports league."

Pash cited an NBA case in which Leon Wood was ruled ineligible.

Ohio State suspended Clarett before last season for accepting money from a family friend and for lying about it to NCAA and university investigators.

In 2003, he rushed for 1,237 yards and led the Buckeyes to a national championship as a freshman.

Information from ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton and The Associated Press was used in this report.