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Clarett ruling stayed

Clarett (and Mike Williams) will not be eligible for the NFL draft this Saturday, as an appeals court in Manhattan granted a stay of the lower court ruling in Clarett's favor. Clarett won at the lower court level using an antitrust argument, one that has a strong precedent in the Spencer Haywood case. The main bone of contention is whether the exemption from antitrust enjoyed by labor unions protects the NFL's draft restriction from an antitrust challenge. Although this was only a stay of the original decision, the quotes from the judges in this piece reflect a somewhat hostile attitude toward the plaintiff.

The judges had the option to either let the earlier ruling stand, reverse it and block Clarett and Williams from the draft, or simply issue a stay to give themselves more time to decide.

Clarett's attorney, Alan C. Milstein, argued that the age restriction was not agreed upon as a result of collective bargaining and that the league should not be allowed to enforce one even if it is collectively bargained because it affects players not in the union, who therefore have no voice in it. The judges, however, seemed to dismiss that part of the argument in their questioning of Milstein.

"That's what unions do, they protect people in the union from people not in the union," said Judge Sonia Sotomayor, extending her point to say the league and union could decide not to have a draft, as long as they agreed on it. That, she said, was the essence of labor law. "It might not be nice," she said. "But it's not illegal."

It is more than "not nice." The agreement (if it can be called that) excludes a well-defined class: 20 year old players like Mike Williams. Were it just the usual union "protection," there is no doubt that labor law trumps antitrust law. But an agreement to exclude a well-defined class of market participants seems different to this observer. Substitute "black" or "white" or "more than 30 years of age" in place of "two years removed from high school", and ask yourself if you think the appeals court would overturn the original decision.

Footnote: Last night, ESPN interviewed a half dozen NFL coaches etc. on the restriction, all of whom echoed the party line. To paraphrase the typical response: "it's for their own good." Hogwash, and shame on ESPN for being a promotional shill for the NFL. The purpose of the restriction is to reduce the costs of player development to NFL teams, pure and simple. European soccer clubs routinely sign players younger than Freddy Adu, the 14 year old soccer phenom. Typically, they train with the club for years before playing in a competitive match (see Beckham, David). Absent the NFL restriction, young American football players - the few who would be worth drafting - would do much the same.

Update: Greg at the Sports Law Blog has commentary and links. He points to a column by Michael Wilbon, whose final sentence is "But it's becoming more and more apparent that barring a last-minute change of heart, serving an apprenticeship for the NFL will continue to be a job requirement." That's right. And the NFL avoids the costs of the apprenticeships in the bargain!