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A National Football League rule that barred Ohio State running backMaurice Clarett from entering the NFL draft after only one year ofcollege violates antitrust laws, a federal judge in Manhattan ruledThursday. Southern District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin said the rule was not partof the league’s collective bargaining agreement with its players andclearly violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by actively excluding certainathletes from the marketplace of NFL jobs. “One can scarcely think of a more blatantly anticompetitive policy thanone that excludes certain competitors from the market altogether,” Scheindlin wrote in Clarett v. National Football League, 03 Civ. 7441. She said that since Clarett was not part of the collectiveagreement, “Clarett’s eligibility was not the union’s to trade away.” The rule states that no player can take part in the NFL’s annual draftuntil three years after his high school graduation. Clarett, a20-year-old who as a freshman in 2003 led Ohio State to its firstnational championship since 1968, has been suspended from the collegeteam for off-field violations. Rather than wait out his suspension, hesued to join the NFL a year earlier than he would normally be eligible. The NFL argued that the rule was immune from antitrust scrutiny becauseit was part of a collective bargaining agreement between the league and itsplayers. It also argued that Clarett had no standing to bring thesuit, and that the rule was reasonable, since it protected younger,less-developed athletes from overtraining and injury. “While, ordinarily, the best offense is a good defense, none of thesedefenses hold the line,” Scheindlin wrote. She added: “The rulemust be sacked.” The NFL said in a statement it would appeal the summary judgment rulingto the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “We believe today’s ruling is inconsistent in numerous respects withwell-established labor and antitrust law,” the league said. Daniel C. Glazer, a member of the sports law group at Shearman &Sterling, said the ruling could have significant ramifications forprofessional and college football. “You could end up seeing something like you have in the [NationalBasketball Association],” where players are increasingly drafted intothe league right out of high school, Glazer said. He added that theNFL might not be able to shore up the rule by explicitly bargaining overit with its players, since the rule, as Scheindlin found, onlyapplies to athletes who are not members of the players’ union. Scheindlin rejected the argument that the rule was part of theleague’s collective bargaining agreement, since it did not address amandatory subject of collective bargaining: wages, hours or conditionsof employment. “Indeed, the rule makes a class of potential players unemployable,” shewrote. CASE DISTINGUISHED The judge distinguished this case from other prominent rulings in sportslaw, including Wood v. National Basketball Ass’n, 809 F.2d 954 (1987). In that case, the 2nd Circuit ruled that a basketball player draftedby the National Basketball Association could not challenge the league’scollective bargaining agreement. The court held that the nonstatutorylabor exemption barred the player’s claim, which challenged issues thatwere specifically bargained for in the contract. In the case of Clarett, Scheindlin said, the rule is notcovered by the nonstatutory labor exemption because it applies only toplayers “who are complete strangers to the bargaining relationship.”As far as the NFL’s purported justifications for the rule, she said theyhad to be pro-competitive. “The NFL’s concern for the health of younger players is laudable, but ithas nothing to do with promoting competition,” she wrote. “Age isobviously a poor proxy for NFL readiness, as is a restriction basedsolely on height or weight.” The judge noted that Clarett, at 6 feet tall and 230 pounds, isbigger than all-time football greats Walter Payton, Barry Sanders andEmmitt Smith. Rather than being automatically excluded, players of hissize and caliber could submit to medical tests to determine maturity andpreparedness for the league, she said. Alan C. Milstein of Sherman, Silverstein, Kohl, Rose & Podolsky in NewJersey represented Clarett, along with John B. Langel and Burt M.Rublin of Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll in Philadelphia. Rublinsaid that while the ruling was the first to invalidate the NFL’s draftrule, it did not make new law. “When you cut through all the rhetoric and smokescreens that the NFL isthrowing up, there is an antitrust violation because he can’t practicehis trade,” Rublin said. Gregg H. Levy of Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., and Jessica L.Malman, of the firm’s New York office, represented the NFL.

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