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Court Puts Williams, Clarett Out of Draft

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Times Staff Writer

An appeals court ruling Monday cleared the way for the NFL to conduct its annual draft this weekend without considering running back Maurice Clarett, former USC receiver Mike Williams and eight other players who had applied for early eligibility for the selection process.

The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York temporarily blocked a landmark District Court judgment that had allowed players of all ages to turn pro. A three-judge appellate panel stayed a February ruling in District Court that found the NFL in violation of antitrust laws by requiring that a player be at least three years out of high school to be eligible for the draft.

The stay all but guarantees that the 2004 draft will not include Clarett, who played one season at Ohio State, and Williams, a sophomore All-American who decided to turn pro after U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin had ruled in Clarett’s favor.

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Because Clarett and Williams have hired agents, neither is eligible to return to college football unless reinstated by the NCAA.

In its two-page order, the appellate panel said the league had shown it could possibly win its argument that its draft-eligibility rules should be upheld. The panel said the stay was warranted to safeguard the NFL from harm and to ensure more meaningful review of the issues. The court also said that any potential harm to Clarett would be lessened by the NFL’s agreement to hold a supplemental draft if the appeals court later ruled in his favor.

“We are pleased that the court has issued a stay,” NFL attorney Jeff Pash said in a written statement. “As the court order says, we have ‘demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits.’ We are grateful for the prompt attention the court has given to this matter, and we await its decision on the merits.”

Gary Roberts, a Tulane University professor and specialist in antitrust law, said there was a good chance the appellate court would render its decision within a month, but not before the draft.

“It wouldn’t make any sense for them to issue the stay, then rule on the merits before the draft,” Roberts said.

In a related development, Williams filed his own lawsuit against the NFL on Monday, claiming breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation. The suit says Williams acted under new guidelines promulgated by the NFL after Scheindlin’s ruling.

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According to Williams’ complaint, the NFL had said it would act on his application only if the lower-court ruling in the Clarett case were upheld. The new condition “undermined Williams’ prospective contracts with NFL clubs and diminished his chances for a truly successful draft,” the complaint says.

The NFL has argued Scheindlin’s ruling was incorrect, saying the league’s draft-eligibility rule is not an antitrust issue, because it resulted from collective bargaining between the league and the players’ union.

Clarett’s attorney, Alan C. Milstein, disputed that there was collective bargaining over an age requirement, and rejected the idea of one because it affects players who are not yet members of the union. The judges seemed to dismiss those arguments in their questioning of Milstein.

Whichever way the appeals court rules, the losing side has the option of resubmitting the case to the entire panel of 12 appellate judges, and/or submitting it to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s unlikely either request would be granted, however.

Williams and Clarett are the only legitimate prospects in the field of early applicants, which also includes a former Pasadena City College player and seven high school players. Williams was widely considered a top-10 selection, and many experts predicted Clarett would be selected in the first three rounds.

It is not unheard of for the NCAA to reinstate an athlete who has hired an agent, and the most recent case involved the reinstatement of a football player. “[But] I want to caution,” said Jeff Howard, an NCAA spokesman, “that it’s not an apples-to-apples scenario.... That’s the reason why the facts of each individual case determines whether there is reinstatement.”

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USC Coach Pete Carroll said he had been doing what he could to help Williams make informed decisions about his future.

“It’s unfortunate that this has turned back and forth on these guys, and they still, at this point, don’t know where they stand,” Carroll said.

“And really we have to, as we have always said, we’re going to try and help our guy understand what’s happening and what his alternatives are, and just have to go through the process.”

Roberts said Monday’s ruling indicated two things: Clarett and Williams are not going to be in the draft, and the appellate judges believe Scheindlin’s ruling was wrong.

“Clarett is not going to win, hands down, at this point,” Roberts said. “Whether or not, at the end of the day, the NFL wins remains to be seen. But the NFL is a lot closer to winning today than it was yesterday.”

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Associated Press, Bloomberg News and Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

NFL Draft

The first three rounds of the NFL draft will be held Saturday (9 a.m.-4 p.m. ESPN; 4 p.m.-end ESPN2), and the next four Sunday (8-10 a.m. ESPN; 10 a.m.-end ESPN2) . The first-round order:

*--* No Team W-L Win. % Opp. W-L Opp. % 1 SAN DIEGO 4-12 250 129-127 504 2 OAKLAND 4-12 250 132-124 516 3 ARIZONA 4-12 250 139-117 543 4 N.Y. GIANTS 4-12 250 142-114 555 5 WASHINGTON 5-11 313 136-120 531 6 DETROIT 5-11 313 137-119 535 7 CLEVELAND 5-11 313 138-118 539 8 ATLANTA 5-11 313 138-118 539 9 JACKSONVILLE 5-11 313 139-117 543 10 HOUSTON 5-11 313 146-110 570 11 PITTSBURGH 6-10 375 128-128 500 12 N.Y. JETS 6-10 375 135-121 527 13 BUFFALO 6-10 375 146-110 570 14 CHICAGO 7-9 438 125-131 488 15 TAMPA BAY 7-9 438 130-126 508 16 SAN FRANCISCO 7-9 438 131-125 512 17 CINCINNATI 8-8 500 117-139 457 18 NEW ORLEANS 8-8 500 128-128 500 19 MINNESOTA 9-7 563 117-139 457 20 MIAMI 10-6 625 131-125 512 21 NEW ENGLAND* 10-6 625 117-139 457 22 DALLAS 10-6 625 118-138 461 23 SEATTLE 10-6 625 119-137 465 24 DENVER 10-6 625 128-128 500 25 GREEN BAY 10-6 625 125-131 488 26 ST. LOUIS 12-4 750 111-145 434 27 TENNESSEE 12-4 750 121-135 473 28 PHILADELPHIA 12-4 750 122-134 477 29 INDIANAPOLIS 12-4 750 126-130 492 30 KANSAS CITY 13-3 813 107-149 418 31 CAROLINA 11-5 688 114-142 445 32 NEW ENGLAND 14-2 875 124-132 484 * Via 2003 draft-day trade with Baltimore

*--*

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EARLY APPLICANTS

Players who had been granted special eligibility as a result of the court ruling:

* Joe Banks, RB, New Directions Academy High (Baltimore)

* John Belisle, QB, Capac (Mich.) Community High

* Maurice Clarett, RB, Ohio State (soph.)

* Earl Fields, DT, Appling County High (Baxley, Ga.)

* Joe Lee, WR, Gates High (Tacoma, Wash.)

* Ronnie McCrae, DB, Pasadena City College

* Ethan Mitchell, RB, Flowers High (Springdale, Md.)

* Ken Petitt, OT, Redford High (Detroit)

* Mike Williams, WR, USC (soph.)

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CALENDAR

* May 25-26: NFL spring meeting, Jacksonville, Fla.

* Mid-July: Training camps open.

* Aug. 9: Pro Football Hall of Fame game, Canton, Ohio.

* Aug. 12-16: First preseason weekend.

* Aug. 31: Roster cut to maximum of 65 players.

* Sept. 5: Roster cut to maximum of 53 players.

* Sept. 9-13: Opening weekend of season.

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