There was a post that devolved into a discussion of the of NFL Draft eligibility rules about a week ago. As I was the person who was largely responsible, I decided to examine Maurice Clarett's situation more closely. Enjoy.
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NFL eligibility rules, like those of the NCAA, can be a contentious issue. This is likely because, regardless of whether we agree or disagree with a rule, the rules are somewhat arbitrary. Since we’re discussing Maurice Clarett here, I’m going to discuss the NFL’s policy that players must be three years removed from high school graduation in order to enter the NFL draft—in other words, they must have completed their Redshirt Sophomore or true Junior season in college football. Clarett challenged that rule in federal court in 2004, where he first was successful in the Southern District—whose ruling was then reversed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
I want to emphasize that I am not a lawyer, and while the lawyers out there are free to destroy my argument and pick apart my almost certainly incorrect usage of legal terminology, that doesn’t necessarily mean my viewpoint is without validity. As a reference for the legal issues, I’ve used a summary of the case, which is available at the bottom of the page.
This is a topic I feel very strongly about. To me, it’s appalling that an adult who is highly qualified for a job is prevented from pursuing that job simply based on his age. Make no mistake; waiting three years after high school is essentially another way of requiring that NFL players be 20-21 years old on draft day. Of course, for me to be upset in this case, I must assume that Clarett and Mike Williams would have been drafted (or at least signed as an undrafted free agent) by an NFL team in that draft. Both were drafted the next year, so I think it’s safe to assume they would have been drafted the season in question.
My argument isn't about what’s best for the fans, or even for the players, it’s about what should or shouldn’t be legal. I would love every college player to stay in school for four seasons. I primarily follow the college game, and the game’s great players are a significant part of why the college game is, to me, the best sport in the world. However, is it acceptable for the government to allow a private entity to not allow an adult to work in a profession he is clearly capable of pursuing? I’m not saying the NFL had to draft Clarett and give him a huge signing bonus, but they essentially prevented him from even applying for a job, despite having met all non age-related qualifications. I’m going to examine if my argument is valid, and whether it’s reasonable to disagree with the court decision the allowed the NFL to deny Clarett entrance into the draft.
Clarett’s lawyers argued that the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement violated various anti-trust acts by denying eligibility for employment to players “who had not first exhausted all college football eligibility, graduated from college, or been out of high school for five football seasons. Clubs were further barred from drafting any person who either did not attend college, or attended college but did not play football, unless that person had been out of high school for four football seasons.” The NFL Commissioner was authorized to admit players via “Special Eligibility,” provided three years of college football had elapsed—these are early entrants to the draft.
The initial case in the Southern District essentially ruled that the Clarett had anti-trust standing; holding that the “’inability to compete in the market’ for NFL players' services is sufficient injury for antitrust purposes.” The Southern District also found that the NFL’s eligibility rules were “blatantly anticompetitive” in ruling in Clarett’s favor. The NFL argued that younger players were less emotionally and physically mature, and therefore more likely to fail at the NFL level. They further argued that younger athletes may attempt to rush their body’s maturation by taking steroids, etc. These are logical arguments that I’d expect the NFL to make here.
Obviously, the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Appeals Court disagreed with the lower court's ruling. Their discussion opens by stating, “It has long been recognized that in order to accommodate the collective bargaining process, certain concerted activity among and between labor and employers must be held to be beyond the reach of the antitrust laws.” This allows unions and employers to negotiate work rules together in good faith—the so-called anti-trust exemption. This is called a “non-statutory exemption,” which is inferred "from federal labor statutes, which set forth a national labor policy favoring free and private collective bargaining; which require good-faith bargaining over wages, hours, and working conditions; and which delegate related rulemaking and interpretive authority to the National Labor Relations Board."
The Appeals Court systematically struck down each of Clarett’s arguments based on past court rulings and federal labor law. According to federal labor law, rules for initial eligibility are required in the collective bargaining process, and may make eligibility more difficult for outside parties, which can be used by unions to protect their workers. Unlike the Southern District, the Appeals Court granted the NFL a non-statutory exemption and allowed them to deny Clarett’s entry into the draft.
The discussion above is what happened during the process. Clearly, assuming that the appointed members of the federal court system are accomplished jurists—which is likely the case—intelligent people can disagree here. I found it interesting that age was not mentioned once in the case summary. When Clarett initially challenged the NFL, I thought it would be a simple case that would immediately fall in Clarett’s favor. He was an adult, and it’s illegal to deny someone a job due to age, which I contend is a clear consequence of the time removed from high school eligibility rules. I was wrong. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states on its website that only workers over the age of forty are protected by age discrimination provisions of federal employment law. That is clearly why age wasn’t mentioned, however, I’m surprised that was not challenged, especially due to the perishable nature of NFL level football ability.
I’m not going to delve too deeply into the morality issue in this diary. I obviously fall on the side of allowing an adult to apply for a job he is qualified for, but many others on the board do not in the case of pro football. I also feel it would have been right for the NFL to allow Mike Williams and Maurice Clarett in under some sort of special exemption. They did win the initial case, and were forced to spend a year in limbo waiting to be drafted—which may have contributed to Clarett’s eventual problems. Had he been able to remain in the very structured environment of organized football, those problems may have been mitigated or never appeared.
Feel free to debate below, but apparently, Maurice Clarett, and I, was wrong based on federal law. Hopefully it was an interesting read.