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Tuesday, April 20, 2004
 

Stay Issued in Clarett Case: The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals shocked much of the sports world on Monday, issuing a ruling that will likely keep Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams out of this weekend's NFL draft. The court granted a stay of the District Court's decision, meaning it cannot be enforced pending a full argument and decision by the appellate court. While this decision could come down prior to Saturday's draft, the chances are almost non-existent. In addition, even if it did, by issuing the stay the court indicated that the NFL has a strong likelihood of succeeding on the merits of the case, which would keep Clarett and Williams out anyway.

The outrage against this decision has been swift, but not legally based. Most commentators have made the policy argument that no matter the law, these players should be able to enter the draft. The most common line of reasoning is that if these players can enlist and go to Iraq, why should they not be able to play pro football? (Note: How do these same people feel on the 21-year limit on buying alcohol?) The market will decide whether or not these players are good enough -- if they are, then they will be drafted and if they are not, then they will return to school.

While intriguing, these arguments miss a number of key points. One, the NFL is a business. It puts a product on the field and wants to produce the best product possible. It has decided that it wants a more experienced and better trained level of player, and the best way to ensure this is a bright-line rule. Second, this decision came as part of a negotiated and agreed-upon Collective Bargaining Agreement. Legally, the NFL stands on very firm ground.

Of the major commentators, only Michael Wilbon decided to comment on the law. He spoke with Sports Law Professor Gary Roberts, who stated that the District Court's decision was akin to approving separate but equal buses for different races. In short, many law-minded people expected this decision to be overturned. Unions bargain for conditions that affect future employees all the time, and these conditions are binding on individuals before they join the union. In this case, Clarett is not precluded from ever playing in the NFL, but he must follow a rule that will later benefit him as a member of the union. The labor agreement should exempt the league from the antitrust argument, which the District Court failed to do. Legally, it appears the 2nd Circuit will side with the NFL and there is strong support for doing so.

For Clarett, this will mean one more year of waiting. Now that he has "professionalized" himself, it will be hard for him to return to Ohio State. The NCAA could make an exception for him, noting the exceptional circumstances in the case, but this seems unlikely. In addition, it is not even clear that Ohio State would want Clarett back, as his previous stay included allegations of taking money and never going to class.

The much tougher case is that of Mike Williams. Williams has filed his own suit, claiming in essence that the NFL changed its policy following the District Court decision, Williams detrimentally relied upon that change, and now the NFL must allows him in the draft. The key question seems to be: what did the NFL represent to Williams? His camp would have you believe that the NFL called Williams, told him of the rule change and asked him to be in the draft. This is about as likely as me being taken with the first overall pick on Saturday. In reality, the Williams team (if they were smart), spoke at great length with the NFL about the new policy and its implications for underclass players. If the NFL did indeed change its rule, as is indicated by its acceptance of Williams and a few other underclass players, then it should not be allowed to change it back at the 11th hour. Williams could argue that the form he submitted for early entry into the draft, which was approved by the NFL, along with his signed agreement with the NFLPA (for licensing), constitutes an agreement by which Williams is eligible for the draft. Under this line of reasoning, the NFL would breach its contract by refusing to make Williams available for the draft. There could also be separate legal liability if a team attempts to draft Williams, but is thwarted by the league.

Damages, though, is a much trickier beast. Williams wants specific performance -- he wants the court to tell the NFL to let him into the draft. This remedy is difficult to get and is rarely granted. It also can only be granted in the negative. Thus, the NFL cannot be mandated to include Williams in the draft, but it could be required not to prevent Williams from being drafted by a team. This toes a touchy legal line and courts may be leery of such a mandate. If found to be in breach, though, the NFL could be liable for monetary damages. These could include his lost salary for this season, lost endorsement deals and other income Williams would have to forego, especially if he returns to USC. Unlike Clarett, USC is dying for Williams to return, and the chance of the NCAA granting a special exception seems much greater due to the flip-flop of the NFL rule and Williams's popularity.

No matter it may look from the outside, legally it appears that the NFL will triumph in this case and underclassmen will have to wait three years from high school graduation to enter the draft.

Editorial Note: I will have more on this, and the impending Williams situation, later today and tomorrow. Please email me if you have any comments on the case, the law or the application of the law to the case. I will compile the best into a reader response post.





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