All the headlines leading up to this weekend's NFL draft are about Maurice Clarett and Eli Manning. I think the most interesting guy is Mike Williams, the USC wide receiver who, like Clarett, won't be eligible after the Supreme Court refused twice Thursday to overturn an appeals court ruling blocking their participation.
For the moment, the NFL ban on players less than three years out of high school stands, though Clarett's challenge has yet to be tried on its merits. The league has said it will hold a supplemental draft for Clarett, a freshman phenom running back at Ohio State two years ago, and Williams if they prevail in court after this weekend. It's Clarett's lawsuit that started all this, but Williams is the guy getting screwed here. He's a better prospect than Clarett, and all he's ever done is follow the rules. Now he can't play in the NFL or the NCAA unless something changes.
Manning, meanwhile, quarterback brother of Peyton and son of Archie and considered by some the top prospect in the draft, has informed the San Diego Chargers, who own the first pick, not to take him. We'll come back to him.
Clarett was routed in court this week. First the NFL won a stay from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that overturned a trial-court ruling that had made him eligible for the draft. Then Clarett lost those two emergency appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday, to Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens.
Williams declared himself for the draft after Clarett won that round in February, when U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the NFL's age restriction violated antitrust laws and prevented Clarett from making a living. At that point, the NFL lifted the restriction, so Williams broke no rule by announcing his intentions to join the league.
When the appeals court ruled this week to lift Scheindlin's stay, a ruling that didn't address the merits of the case but only the NFL's likelihood of making a winnable argument, the league reinstated the rule and Williams was left hanging, not eligible until 2005. Having hired an agent, he also can't return to NCAA football. He's suing the NFL in Manhattan, claiming it made contradictory statements that have harmed him.
If the NFL loses at trial, it says it will hold a supplemental draft for Clarett and Williams. Clarett, who had a brilliant but injury-riddled freshman season and was ineligible as a sophomore because of off-field rules violations last year, is projected as perhaps a third-round choice. Williams is a first-rounder.
The NFL's argument, the one it makes in public anyway, is that pro football is a man's game, and teenagers aren't ready to compete. This isn't the NBA, where high school kids can come in and succeed, the argument goes. These boys will get hurt.
On its editorial page Friday, the Salt Lake Tribune had the right word for this argument: Hogwash.
The real argument -- hold on to your hats, this is going to surprise you -- is about money. The NFL wants to keep teenagers playing college football, where they continue to develop physically, improve their game and get mountains of publicity, all at no cost to the league. The younger a player comes into the league the sooner he'll be eligible for big-money free agency and the more chances he'll have to get hurt before his prime.
The Chicago Bears have been interested in Williams. Here's new coach Lovie Smith, quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times about the receiver: "Do I feel bad for him? Yes. I think everybody deserves the chance. We're all working. Mike can't go back to school. His eligibility is up now, and he has to do something. He's a personable guy, very intelligent, and of course you can see the physical ability he has on tape. When you get a chance to know him, you can see what people really like about him."
So the NFL is arguing that guys like Williams shouldn't be allowed to play because they're not ready, and one of its coaches is saying he sure wishes he could draft the guy because he deserves the chance to play. I'm betting that by the time you read this, Smith will have received a stern phone call from commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Williams will play next year. If the league wins, USC has said it would be willing to petition the NCAA to restore his eligibility. The NCAA, following its policy of always finding a way to punish players for things that aren't their fault, would likely suspend Williams for several games, then let him play. I think Williams would be nuts to put up with that when he can go to the Canadian Football League and start making money. The Ottawa Renegades hold his rights.
Clarett? Who knows. His talent and durability have been questioned and his various off-field problems make him a risky pick. The Montreal Alouettes, who have been to three of the last four Grey Cup games, winning one, have his rights in Canada. The Arena Football League is also an option for both, but that's a physically rough league to spend a year in if you're just biding your time before going to the show.
I don't know enough about the law to assess Williams' chances in court, but I hope he wins, because right now he's straight-up getting robbed.
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What gives Eli the right? [PERMALINK]
I've been guessing that Eli Manning is in for the same level of contempt that met John Elway two decades ago when he said he wouldn't play for the Baltimore Colts. The Colts drafted him anyway and Elway went off to play minor league baseball until Baltimore gave in and traded him to the Broncos. Elway was vilified as a prima donna.
The e-mails have been trickling in since the Chargers leaked Wednesday night that Manning had told them not to draft him and it looks like my hunch was correct. What right does this kid have? is the basic question. Reader Tom Beverly referred colorfully to "the impudence of this mollycoddled wunderkind who thinks he deserves some say in the draft process."
I understand the visceral reaction to what looks like a spoiled-child act, but I can't help thinking, why shouldn't Manning have a say in where he plays? If he has some leverage, why shouldn't he use it? Don't you when you have it?
If you're in a position to have a say about what your working future will be, what reason would you have for giving up that say? If you had the power or leverage, for whatever reason, to say to your boss, "I'm not going to accept the transfer to Polecat City. I'm staying here," and make it stick, why wouldn't you use it? Even if it were clearly best for the company, or heck, the whole industry, for you to go to Polecat City.
It seems to me like a pretty good gamble for Manning. The only bad outcome for him would be if the Chargers call his bluff, draft him anyway, and then don't trade him if he follows through on his threat not to sign. That seems unlikely, a shooting oneself in the foot, not that the Chargers' feet are bullet hole-free when it comes to drafting quarterbacks, but that's another story.
Far more likely is that the Chargers will either pass on him, trade the pick or draft him and then trade him. I suppose Manning will still have to put up with being called an impudent, mollycoddled wunderkind, but does anybody remember John Elway being thought of that way?
The draft is designed to limit players' leverage. Rookies can't force teams into bidding wars over their services because only one team has the rights to each player. Occasionally, a rookie comes along with enough leverage to try to control his destiny. If he chooses to do so, good for him. I'd do the same thing, and I think you would too.
For what it's worth, though, I'd be happy to play for the Chargers.
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A short break [PERMALINK]
Once you get past that handful of marquee players in the top of the first round, the NFL draft becomes what I like to call Two Days of Guys You've Never Heard of Before and Are Unlikely to Hear of Again. And it involves way, way too much Chris Berman for my taste.
This column will celebrate the event by going on vacation for a week, so it'll be nice and forgotten by the time I return on May 3. See you then.
Previous column: The readers write
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