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Whatever happened to common sense?

WashPost: Ohio State RB benefits from poor — and wrong — ruling
MAURICE CLARETT ARRIVES AT NEWS CONFERENCE IN NEW YORK
Maurice Clarett, left, talks on his cell phone as his lawyer, Alan Milstein, looks on. A federal judge opened the door for Clarett and other teenage football stars to turn pro, declaring that an NFL rule barring their eligibility violates antitrust law and "must be sacked," but it was the wrong decision, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post says.Jeff Christensen / Reuters
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Just because someone is excluded doesn't necessarily mean he's been wronged. But that was Maurice Clarett's legal stance, and now he's been backed up by a federal judge who prefers obscure reasoning to good sense and sound law.

With her ruling yesterday, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ordered the NFL to go into the babysitting business and opened the way, at least temporarily, for kids to go to the pros straight out of high school. We'll see if it stands up on appeal. The prediction here is that it gets tossed, on grounds of silliness.

The NFL's draft policy is perfectly fair and reasonable: What's wrong with forbidding players to enter the league until they've been out of secondary school for three years or completed three collegiate seasons? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Yet it was found to be illegal by Scheindlin, who threw out a rule that makes perfect moral and intellectual sense on the very shaky grounds that it's anti-competitive. Scheindlin found that the league's policy excludes players in Clarett's position from selling their services to the only viable buyer, the NFL. Basically, she agreed with Clarett's lawyers, who argued the NFL robbed players such as Clarett of an opportunity to enter the multimillion dollar marketplace and therefore is in violation of antitrust law.

"The NFL has not justified Clarett's exclusion by demonstrating that the rule enhances competition. Indeed, Clarett has alleged the very type of injury — a complete bar to entry into the market for his services — that the antitrust laws are designed to prevent," the judge said.

But her ruling overlooks several important points of common sense. First of all, the NFL policy doesn't prevent Clarett from entering the league; it only prevents him from entering it now. Current NFL rules would allow him to enter the draft in 2005. Second, the case is hardly a classic antitrust conspiracy — Clarett is just one person, and there is nothing to suggest that keeping him out of the draft for the moment would harm overall competition. Antitrust is not supposed to be about one person, but about a whole effect on a market. What's more, the league's draft eligibility rule was made in partnership with the league's own labor pool, the players' association, and therefore should be exempt from antitrust scrutiny. This is not what antitrust law was meant for.

All agreements restrain trade a little bit — what the Sherman Act is meant to police is unreasonable restraint of trade. A court's job is to look at the purpose, background and effects of an agreement and determine just how badly it restrains trade. There are certain categories of agreements, such as price-fixing, that are so badly restraining they are "per se" violations of antitrust. This is not one of them.

Furthermore, the entry of teenagers into the pro sports leagues has proven to be thoroughly warping for both the pro leagues and the athletes concerned. The NFL can argue quite effectively that admitting players such as Clarett would damage their product. As Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has said, "Our system is working. It is easy to identify players who were helped by staying in school and were developing their skills."

There was plenty of room for Scheindlin to find for the NFL, if she had wanted to. She had to work very, very hard in her 71-page decision to justify Clarett's claim. "While, ordinarily, the best offense is a good defense, none of these defenses hold the line," is an example of her silly wording. Instead, she should have said, "This is just one player, and there is nothing to show that excluding him and a few more like him affects competition."

None of this even begins to address the fact that Clarett has done nothing to demonstrate that he's ready for the NFL physically, mentally, or emotionally. Clarett rushed for 1,237 yards as a freshman before he began screwing up in every way conceivable, accepting improper benefits and lying on a police report. Also, the court ruling comes a day after Ohio State announced it's investigating a report that a "benefactor" of Clarett's was gambling while in daily contact with the star running back.

If natural market forces are allowed to take over where the NFL's very reasonable draft policy used to be, here's what will happen: An inexperienced and unsteady kid will go to the pros before he is ready or able, and quite possibly ruin his future. One of the byproducts of the NFL's draft policy is that it saves people from themselves. It saves them from their own avarice, excess, temptations and bad judgment. The NFL's policy is as fair and reasonable as, say, a helmet law. It doesn't prevent anyone from riding a motorcycle; it's just a sensible precaution.

But it's not the NFL's job to save Maurice Clarett from himself. Only he can do that. The NFL's concern now is how to save itself from this lousy ruling. It will appeal, as well it should. Hopefully, a smart judge will overturn a bad decision and affirm the NFL's sound and fair draft policy.