- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

The issue in Civil Action No.03-CV-7441 — otherwise known as the Maurice Clarett case — isn’t about whether a college sophomore should be allowed to enter the NFL Draft. Not really. It’s about whether the league should be able to run its business as it sees fit. It’s about control.

No group of owners has a firmer hand on the wheel than NFL owners. It’s a major reason why pro football is the biggest success story in sports history. While other leagues wallow in labor strife, the NFL has built a strong relationship with its players’ union, enabling it to control costs with a wonderful invention known as the hard salary cap. The league’s ever-expanding drug-testing policy, the first of its kind in pro sports, is another implement of control. And its increasing involvement with stadium building is yet another. (Nobody wants another Cleveland Browns situation.)

Also, the NFL is very picky about who it invites into the lodge — as Howard Milstein can tell you — and no league pays more attention to the game itself and keeping it entertaining. Owners are constantly tinkering with the rules to maintain the proper balance between offense and defense (or rather, the proper imbalance, since the offense has always been given a slight edge). About the only thing the NFL can’t control, it seems, are Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson. But give it time.

Control, control and more control; that’s the league’s guiding philosophy. Don’t let the forces of modernity, the corruption of mass culture, infiltrate the game. Where else but the NFL would a player get fined tens of thousands of dollars for making a cell phone call from the end zone? The league likes to pretend it’s hip, as with its Super Bowl halftime entertainment, but it’s really about as happenin’ as Ward Cleaver. It’s “Playmakers” on a black-and-white TV.

So along comes this 20-year-old running back who wants to crash the party, who wants to strip the league of some of its control and, well, how do you think the owners are going to react? These are men who don’t like being told what to do. They’ll fight it all the way to the Inter-Galactic Court of Appeals if they have to. (At which point, the Klingons’ Judge Judy will tell Paul Tagliabue to get with the times and let the kid in.)

Whenever matters of control are at stake, the NFL can be counted on to do a lot of huffing and puffing. Its current stance seems to be that if any ol’ body is allowed to play in the league, it’ll be tremendously inconvenient because, among other things, none of the locker rooms is currently equipped with a diaper-changing station. Then there’s the hideous prospect of having to scout high school football games — and, worse, being constantly hounded by students selling raffle tickets. Yup, declaring Maurice Clarett eligible for the draft is opening a huge can of worms.

Or not. It’s hard to imagine a swarm of schoolboys descending on the NFL (assuming the Clarett ruling is upheld, that is). The occasional running back, maybe, but how many players at other positions are going to be ready for the physical demands of pro football? Do you think Reggie White, straight out of high school, would have been a very fearsome defensive lineman? I don’t. And how many clubs would consider it worth the effort to develop such players, knowing that at the end of their contracts — just as the players were getting the hang of it — they might be lost to free agency? It’s hard enough to train and retain players now, after they’ve had three or four years of college ball.

Running backs are different, though, because what they do is largely instinctive. Herschel Walker was 6-2, 222, with a sprinter’s speed, as a freshman at Georgia. He certainly could have made the jump to the NFL. Marcus Dupree was similarly blessed as a first-year player for the Oklahoma Sooners. He could have made the jump, too. Clarett is 6-feet, 230 — the same dimensions as Stephen Davis. I’ve gotta believe he could gain as many yards as, say, Antowain Smith, who started for the Super Bowl champion Patriots.

The idea that the owners might try to punish Clarett by not drafting him is laughable. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Al Davis still in the league? If Al wants Clarett for the Raiders, he’s going to draft him regardless of what anybody else thinks. (And since Oakland is reportedly cutting ties with Charlie Garner, Davis might very well be interested in Clarett, perhaps in the second round.) Heck, I wouldn’t put it past Dan Snyder to take Clarett with his No.2 pick, provided he hasn’t given it up for Mark Brunell. The Redskins desperately need a back, and Dan the Man has never shied away from problem children. Witness his signing this past season of Byron Chamberlain, Darrell Russell and Kenyatta Jones.

Rest assured the NFL will survive this latest “threat” — just as it has survived all the other threats, real and imagined. A decade from now, in fact, we’ll probably be wondering what all the fuss was about. A few Maurice Claretts aren’t going to spoil the stew. They’re just going to keep the owners from being quite so … controlling.

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