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When the U.S. Court Disrupts Your Draft Picks

By Yong-yi Zhu

SPORTS COLUMNIST

With the NFL draft being this weekend, the general managers in charge of finding the right talent for their own teams have already been in a constant state of disarray. But then came the decision from the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Maurice Clarett, Mike Williams, and the other underclassmen that left their schools early and found agents are no longer eligible to be in the draft. Not only has this caused serious disruption to those athletes’ lives, but also this has severely disrupted the projections for picks being made over the next two days.

It all began with Maurice Clarett. He was suspended from Ohio State’s football program for a year because he received inappropriate funds. That was controversy in itself, but the bigger storm was yet to come. Clarett then wanted to be in the NFL draft following his year of suspension. He took it to the courts and eventually received a favorable ruling that the underclassmen could be declared eligible for the NFL; you no longer needed to have three years in college.

With that, athletes like Mike Williams of USC suddenly wanted to be in the draft. And why not? Williams was athletic enough and talented enough to compete with the rest of the NFL, or so it seemed at the moment. It made sense for someone like Williams, especially because he was being projected to be one of the top wide receivers, any way. In fact, the question that encircled was not whether Williams would be able to survive in the NFL but whether he would be drafted ahead or behind Larry Fitzgerald and Roy Williams.

Then, the appeals courts came back with a ruling that somewhat shattered all the expectations of both Williams and the scouts. They reversed the previous decision and said that the underclassmen would not be eligible for the draft. They said that the NFL had its rights to make its limitations and that there is no reason why this would should suddenly be changed.

So now what are the implications? Well, it means that these underclassmen will not be a part of the draft this weekend. It means that everyone who had Mike Williams on their draft card will be forced to look down a spot and that Lee Evans is now the third best wide receiver in the mix. It means that everyone who had Maurice Clarett on their draft card will be force to also look elsewhere to draft a running back with great upside at a smaller cost. (If you ask me, Clarett is definitely more trouble than he is worth.) But most significantly, it means that every student who has declared himself or herself eligible is no longer able to go back to school.

That’s right. Because those athletes have forgone their eligibility to play amateur sports, they can no longer go back to their colleges to continue their careers there. Now it is true that there are still several things that can happen, but things are looking somewhat bleak. The courts can still reverse the decision and declare these underclassmen eligible for the draft. In that case, there would be a supplemental draft in which teams can draft from those guys, using their picks from next year.

If the courts do not reverse the decision, the underclassmen, and some high school students, can try to ask for reinstatement in their colleges. It is a very involved process and requires a lot of backing on the part of the colleges, but it is doable. Pete Carroll, for one, has already been open about backing Mike Williams, should he have to rely on that option. (Of course, Pete Carroll wants his star receiver back to go at another national championship.)

But in the end, when it’s all said and done, did the NFL really win the case? The teams lost out on great talent that they would have loved to gamble on. Their future employees, the student athletes, lost out on potential jobs. Those underclassmen simply wanted to take advantage of a new court decision. They should not be punished now that this ruling has been reversed. True, the NFL has its right in trying to keep too many underclassmen from entering the NFL, diluting the college talent. But perhaps for this case, the punishment is a bit cruel and unusual and should not be carried out.