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NFL’s Draft Eligibility Rule Ripe for a Challenge?

February 15th, 2013 at 3:20 PM
By Matthew Heimlich

University of South Carolina's junior defensive end Jadaveon Clowney is widely considered one of, if not the top player in NCAA football going into the upcoming season.  Yahoo Sports's Michael Silver quotes GMs and coaches in his article about Jadaveon's situation that if he were allowed to enter this April's draft, he would unquestionably be a top three selection.  Instead, because of an appellate court decision that mandates that a player be three seasons removed from high school football before entering the NFL draft, Clowney is required to wait another year before he is allowed to turn pro.

This ruling goes against the grain of most professional sports, where players are allowed to turn pro whenever they are considered fit to compete at a professional level.  No one is questioning Clowney's readiness to play and contribute in the NFL.  In his article, Silver advises Clowney to retain counsel to challenge the rule on the grounds that it is age discrimination and unnecessarily restrictive.

For much of the NFL's history, players were required to be four seasons removed from high school football before being eligible for the NFL Draft.  In 1990, that requirement was reduced to three seasons removed from high school football.  In 2004, Maurice Clarett decided to take on this rule, and successfully defeated it in the U.S. District Court.  The court determined that the eligibility rules for the NFL draft were not addressed in, and thus should be considered separate and apart from, the antitrust exempt collective bargaining agreement.  This district court held that the antitrust exemption does not apply because draft eligibility rules: (1) are not mandatory subjects of collective bargaining; (2) affect only "complete strangers to the bargaining relationship"; and (3) were not shown to be the product of arm's length negotiations between the league and players.  The district could also held that the draft eligibility requirements were "blatantly anti-competitive" and the NFL's concerns could be addressed through less restrictive but equally effective means.  Clarett v. National Football League, 306 F.Supp. 2d 379 (S.D.N.Y. 2004).

This decision was appealed and later overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit. The court held that Clarett's complaint was solely about the league's restraint upon the labor market for players' services.  In three prior cases involving this same issue, the Court held that although the restrictions violated the anti-trust laws, the non-statutory labor exemptions still defeated the players' claims.  The court held that draft eligibility, even if not specifically addressed in the current collective bargaining agreement represent the literal terms of employment in the league, and therefore are a "mandatory bargaining subject".  Eligibility rules cannot be viewed in isolation, because changing the rules might alter certain assumptions fundamental to the collective bargaining agreement.  Clarett v. National Football League, 369 F.3d 124 (2d. Cir. 2004).

The court essentially decided that it is more important for the negotiations between the league and players to be efficient than it is for individual players to receive the maximum benefit from the system.  The  opinion at several different points alludes that ruling in favor of Clarett could lead to impugning the integrity of the collective bargaining system.  It appears from this decision that contract elements that were not actually bargained for during negotiations are still subject to the antitrust exemption.

With that kind of precedent potentially facing Clowney, and the reverence the judiciary has shown for collective bargaining, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where he would be able to succeed in court.  Although the antitrust laws in this area can be murky, it is likely that a judge would err on the side of being cautious so as to not potentially disturb the collective bargaining process.


Tags: Law, NFL, Sports, Sports Law

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