NFL plans to appeal ruling

NEW YORK -- A federal judge opened the door for Ohio State
sensation Maurice Clarett and teenage football stars to turn pro,
declaring Thursday that an NFL rule barring their eligibility
violates antitrust law and "must be sacked."

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin said legal issues are so
clearly in Clarett's favor a trial is unnecessary. The NFL said it
will appeal, and it will probably try to block the ruling before
the April draft.

Clarett sued the league last year to challenge its 1990 rule
that a player must be out of high school three years to enter the

"I was pleased that the rule was brought down," Clarett said
at a news conference. "It gives kids an opportunity to choose."

Clarett's lawyer, Alan Milstein, called it a "total victory."
He said the star running back was "thrilled" and would speak at a
news conference in New York later Thursday.

Jeff Pash, the executive vice president of the NFL, said the
ruling left him "really surprised" but confident on appeal
because its findings contradicted those of past court rulings.

The ruling, if it holds up on appeal, means that high school
football players and college underclassmen will be able to make the
jump to the pros just like their counterparts in the NBA.

Dozens of basketball players, including Kobe Bryant and LeBron
James, have gone to the NBA straight after high school in recent
years, becoming instant celebrities and signing shoe endorsement
deals that make them millionaires before the ink is dry on their
high school diplomas.

Scheindlin wrote that the NFL rule "is precisely the sort of
conduct that the antitrust laws were designed to prevent."

"One can scarcely think of a more blatantly anticompetitive
policy than one that excludes certain competitors from the market
altogether," she wrote.

Clarett, a 20-year-old sophomore, played just one season at Ohio
State, leading the Buckeyes to the 2002 national championship. He
was barred from playing in the 2003 season for accepting improper
benefits from a family friend and then lying to investigators about

Ohio State would have to petition the NCAA to allow Clarett to
return for the 2004 season, and it is unclear whether the school
would succeed. The court ruling came a day after Ohio State said it
was investigating an ESPN.com report that the family friend was
gambling while in daily contact with Clarett during the 2002

Clarett would be prevented from entering the NFL draft until
2005 under current rules.

His lawyers had called the rule arbitrary and anticompetitive,
arguing it robbed players like Clarett of an opportunity to enter
the multimillion-dollar marketplace.

Scheindlin noted courts had already eliminated similar age-based
rules violating antitrust laws in professional basketball and
hockey. She said the NFL had kept one in effect since Illinois'
star running back, Harold "Red" Grange, left school in 1925 to
join the Chicago Bears for $50,000.

The league argued that Clarett should not be eligible for the
draft because its rule resulted from a collective bargaining
agreement with the players and is immune from antitrust scrutiny.

"We believe today's ruling is inconsistent in numerous respects
with well-established labor and antitrust law," the league said.

No other player has challenged the eligibility rule. It was
supported by the league's coaches and executives, who say younger
players aren't physically ready for the NFL, although the 6-foot,
230-pound Clarett could be an exception.

"I don't know that the floodgates are opening," Pash said.
"While the ruling is broad in its language, I think we have to
wait and see what the effect is."

Some observers doubted the ruling would lead many youngsters to
try to turn pro.

"Most of these guys aren't ready, and the teams know that,"
said Robert A. McCormick, a professor at the Detroit College of Law
at Michigan State University who worked on the Clarett case.

Jeff Reynolds, a writer at Pro Football Weekly, said the ruling
probably would not have an immediate effect on young players around
the country, but he suggested that could change if NFL teams
started sending scouts to high school games.

It was more likely, he said, that players will leave college
early to enter the draft.

Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington said Clarett
could be in for a rough time when he joins the league.

"Because of the way he's done all these things, some people
here see it as disrespectful," Arrington said at the Pro Bowl in
Hawaii. "I'm sure guys are going to break his tail, try to break
him in.

"Either he'll succeed, or he'll be a total bust. If he can make
it that rookie year without being assassinated, I think he'll be
all right."

During his state of the NFL address two days before the Super
Bowl, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said the league wouldn't try to
reach a settlement with Clarett.

"It's a pretty direct point in terms of what the rule is, and
Maurice Clarett's status falls under the rule," Tagliabue said.
"Our system is working. It is easy to identify players who were
helped by staying in school and were developing their skills."

Scheindlin wasn't swayed by the league's arguments.

"While, ordinarily, the best offense is a good defense," she
said, "none of these defenses hold the line."