Sports Law Blog
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Sunday, February 08, 2004

More on Clarett: The fall-out on the Clarett case has been predictably widespread and conflicted. The NFL plans to appeal the case, but the only way to prevent Clarett and other underclassmen that declare for the NFL by March 1 from entering the April 24 draft is to have the original court or an appellate court issue a stay. However, even the league lawyers admit that thestay won't come in time.

How will the decision affect Clarett? The public reaction to his case is mixed, as evidenced by Writer's Bloc, which lists Clarett among the five biggest legal players in sports history. Many columnists have noted that Clarett should not be vilified for his professional desires, especially when teenagers have turned pro in nearly every other major sport, including Freddy Adu joining the MLS at age 14. However, despite Clarett's declaration that he is ready to play in NFL, there are numerous questions about where Clarett will actually go in the draft. Citing his health and inexperience, some columnists think he may not be ready for the NFL and could be a second round pick at best.

How will the decision affect football? Agents are salivating at the chance to sign numerous draft hopefuls in their first or second year of college, with one describing the situation as a "free-for-all". This, of course, signifies the most pressing issue. A number of talented athletes will have friends and agents whispering in their ears about how they are a "lock" to be taken high in the draft. But by most accounts, the NFL is the professional league that represents the biggest step up from the college game, and it most definitely is a different game than the one played in high school. A number of athletes may be misled into believing that they can star, or even play, in the NFL, and once they are drafted or sign with an agent, college will be foreclosed forever. Thus, the greatest impact may be on the individual players. In addition, with limited roster sizes and the league's hard salary cap, teams will not have the patience for players to develop the needed skills normally obtained in three years of college games and practices.

In addition, there is the fear that the new rule will degrade the quality of play in the NFL, by adding players will less-defined skills, and also degrade college football by taking out the best talent. Critics point to the NBA and college basketball for an example of how this can happen.

Is it fair for Clarett to receive such criticism, when athletes in other sports turn professional at such a young age? Many argue that the distinction for basketball and football players, when players in baseball, hockey, golf and tennis routinely turn pro as teenagers, is nothing more than racism directed at the African-American stars. But the opposite argument is that the other leagues mentioned are either individual sports, thus quickly identifying those you can make it and those that cannot, or sports will development systems that can allow professional franchises to develop their younger players in the minor leagues before exposing them to the professional game. Neither the NFL nor the NBA has such a system and as a result, entering players are expected to produce at the highest level from day one.

Legally, the NFL probably should have lost. But as a sports fan, one is not unjustified in saying that a judge who has admitted to "never watching a football game" may have seriously harmed the top spectator sport in the US.


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