Todd Hartley: Does the Buckeye stop here? | AspenTimes.com

Todd Hartley: Does the Buckeye stop here?

A year ago at this time, Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett was the second coming of Archie Griffin, the only man ever to win two Heisman Trophies and, like Clarett, a god around Columbus.

Clarett was on his way to 1,237 rushing yards and freshman-of-the-year awards, and the Buckeyes were on their way to an undefeated season and the school’s first national championship since 1968.

What a difference a year makes.

Earlier this fall Clarett was suspended by Ohio State for at least a year after it was determined he broke a number of NCAA rules and then lied to investigators. He will almost certainly never suit up for the Buckeyes again. It’s also likely that Clarett will never play college football again.

To protect his own interests, Clarett is attempting to enter the 2004 NFL draft, during which he would probably be selected in the first or second round. There’s just one problem: The NFL has a rule prohibiting players from entering the draft until they have been out of high school for three years. Thus, Clarett is not eligible for the draft until 2005.

Naturally, this being 21st-century America, last Tuesday Clarett filed a lawsuit against the NFL. He wants a judge to either declare him eligible for the draft or force the league to have a special supplemental draft just for him. The NFL responded by saying it would fight any challenge to the rule.

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This is a tough spot for the NFL to be in. The league has to do everything it can to protect its right to make its own rules, so it has to fight Clarett in court, but it’s a fight that the NFL will have a very hard time winning.

Clarett’s lawsuit contends that the rule limiting draft eligibility violates antitrust laws and harms competition, and it quite obviously does.

We live in a world where basketball, baseball and hockey players are frequently drafted right out of high school and tennis players turn pro at the age of 13. It’s ludicrous for the NFL to think it can, through its rule, limit fair competition and deny a man the right to earn a living doing what he does best.

And yet the NFL not only is willing to act the fool but actually had the audacity to issue a statement saying, in part, “We do not believe that this lawsuit serves the best interests of Maurice Clarett.”

On what planet is sitting on your duff for a year doing nothing more beneficial than making a couple of million dollars? And just who does the NFL think it is to be deciding what a young man’s best interests are anyway?

The nearest parallel I can draw to this court battle is the case of Casey Martin v. the PGA. Martin, who suffered from a degenerative condition in one leg and couldn’t walk a full round of golf, sued the PGA for the right to ride a cart during tournaments.

The PGA fought Martin all the way to the Supreme Court but ultimately lost the battle, as the no-cart rule was found to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The PGA probably knew all along that it would lose, but it had to show that it would go to great lengths to defend its own rules.

So does this mean the NFL will fight Clarett all the way to the Supreme Court? Probably not. Clarett has a stronger case than Martin did, and by dropping the draft-eligibility rule, the NFL will not see a flood of high school kids and underclassmen entering the draft.

The rule was enacted because the NFL recognizes that football is a very physical game and teenagers could get seriously hurt playing with full-grown men. This is unlikely to change should Clarett win his lawsuit; I think most football-playing teenagers have no desire to join the NFL until their bodies have filled out a bit. Likewise, most NFL teams probably aren’t interested in drafting too many kids.

Clarett, however, is a pretty mature kid and piques the curiosity of every team in the league. He should have the right to be drafted by one. And that is why, no matter how much bluster you hear from the NFL, and no matter how long the league fights this lawsuit, you can expect to see Clarett in the draft next spring.

[Former XFL first-round draft pick Todd Hartley writes this column on Fridays in The Aspen Times. E-mail at todd@aspentimes.com]

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