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Other Colleges Clarett's lawsuit against NFL sparks debate

Paterno supports RB, Rooney doesn't

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

By Shelly Anderson, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

There was support locally for both sides yesterday after suspended Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett filed a lawsuit against the NFL that could change when and how young football players turn pro.

Clarett and attorney Alan C. Milstein are challenging the NFL's rule that forbids prospects from entering the draft until three years after high school graduation. The suit, filed in New York, asks U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin to strike down the rule so that Clarett can enter the 2004 draft.

 
 
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After rushing for 1,237 yards as a freshman to help Ohio State win the 2002 national championship, Clarett has been banned from playing this season by the Buckeyes after an investigation determined he broke NCAA rules concerning benefits for athletes and lied to investigators. Under NFL rules, he is not eligible for the draft until April 2005.

If Clarett, 19, is successful with the lawsuit, it could open the door for players 18 or older to leave college after a year or two or skip it altogether and petition to enter the NFL draft.

Clarett has the backing of Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who believes college-age players should have control of their future.

"Without getting into the ramifications if he wins, I think if he wants to go, let him go," Paterno said. "If Clarett sues and wins and then he decides he wants to come back, let him come back. I think each kid ought to make his own decision."

Others like the system of players spending at least a few years in college before attempting to make the transition to the physically and mentally demanding NFL.

Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said it would benefit NFL teams to get the rights to exceptional players when they are younger, but he believes that, if anything, the current rule is too soft.

"I think the player-student's best interest is that really these kids should have to go to school for four years," Rooney said. "I think you have to look at this a little bit altruistically and say they should stay in school and get their education."

Robert Morris coach Joe Walton, a former NFL player and coach, agreed.

"I think the rule the way it is, is good," he said. "When most kids first get out of high school they are not physically strong enough to give the pros a try. The rule should even be stronger -- make it four years out of high school before you can enter the pros."

Clarett has other options such as transferring to a lower-division school so he can play right away or playing in the Canadian or Arena leagues while he waits to become eligible for the NFL draft. Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said he was aware of the lawsuit but had not talked with Clarett.

According to Pitt coach Walt Harris, Clarett is seeking special treatment.

"I don't think anybody deserves the right to break what's already been set by many other outstanding players who would have all liked to have gone out earlier," Harris said. "I think it would just open up a Pandora's box."

There is sure to be a lot of debate as the lawsuit proceeds as to whether the NFL can legally deny anyone 18 or older the opportunity to pursue a football career, especially one that could earn them multimillion-dollar contracts.

The NHL and Major League Baseball, which develop most of their players through their minor leagues, long have drafted 18-year-olds, and the NBA has done it more frequently in recent years.

Duquesne coach Greg Gattuso, who played on Penn State's 1982 national championship team, is torn between players' rights and what he believes is best for the sport.

"I honestly would never want to see a kid that age play pro football," Gattuso said. "That said, there's a right in this country to have the freedom to try. I think a kid certainly deserves an opportunity to feed his family and do the things he feels are beneficial. It's hard to tell a kid he can't make a living just because he's 19 years old."

Gattuso is among those who believe Clarett will win. Rooney favors the NFL.

"From what I understand, the people and the lawyers with the NFL think it's a good case, and the colleges, too," Rooney said. "Their argument is the right to work. But, hey, listen there are many not qualified. They take the step and then they're out."

Another question is whether the NFL and its high-powered lawyers can drag out the lawsuit until after the draft in April.

"Cases can be settled in a week, but they can also take two, three years," Rooney said.

"I don't know what he's planning on doing," Harris said, "but it's going to take a lot of money to fight the NFL."

The collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players union does not address eligibility standards for the draft. The three-year guideline is strictly a league rule, but the NFL might stand a better chance of fending off Clarett's lawsuit if the rule was part of the CBA.

"I don't know if it's foolproof, but it would definitely give more protection," said Rooney, who is not sure if the rule could be added to the CBA. "I saw where [union head] Gene Upshaw has already said that he thinks the kid should be [at Ohio State] and stay as the rules now stand."

Even if Clarett wins in time for the 2004 draft, there is the question of how well he could perform in the NFL after just one season of college football and an idle year.

"In the right circumstances, yes, I think he could make it," Gattuso said. "There's no question he has the talent to make it. Does he have the maturity -- that's the question."

Harris said there's no debate -- Clarett has shown that he is not mature enough for NFL life and could self-destruct.

"The NFL is not just lining up and hitting somebody," said Harris, a former NFL assistant and an Ohio State assistant before Clarett arrived. "You're talking about making big-time money. It's a job. You have free time on your hands and money in your pocket. I think his problem is, he needs to grow up.

"Plus, he's gifted, so he's had a lot of things come his way for a long time. What happens is you get a feeling that life is pretty easy. Now he's got a better understanding that life's a lot tougher than he thinks it is."


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721. Post-Gazette sports writers Phil Axelrod, Ed Bouchette, Ray Fittipaldo, Paul Zeise and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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