Judge: NFL Eligibility Rule Violates Antitrust Laws

National Football League (search) rule barring younger players violates antitrust laws, a federal judge said Thursday in deciding that a suspended Ohio State (search) player can participate in the league's draft this April.

Maurice Clarett (search) sued the NFL last summer to challenge the league rule that a player must be out of high school three years to be eligible for the draft. Thursday's ruling, if it withstands a possible appeal, could allow teenage football stars to take advantage of the career and business opportunities available to young athletes in other sports.

Clarett, a tailback, played just one season at Ohio State, leading the Buckeyes to the 2002 national championship. He was suspended last season for accepting improper benefits from a family friend and then lying about it to investigators.

NFL spokesmen did not immediately return phone messages. Alan Milstein, the lawyer handling Clarett's NFL lawsuit, said he had no immediate comment.

The NFL argued that its rule resulted from a collective bargaining agreement with the players and is immune from antitrust scrutiny. The league also said its rule is reasonable and that Clarett could not bring such a lawsuit.

"While, ordinarily, the best offense is a good defense, none of these defenses hold the line," U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin said in her ruling.

She said Clarett could bring the lawsuit because he was fighting a policy that excludes all players in his position from selling their services to the only viable buyer -- the NFL.

"The NFL has not justified Clarett's exclusion by demonstrating that the rule enhances competition. Indeed, Clarett has alleged the very type of injury -- a complete bar to entry into the market for this services -- that the antitrust laws are designed to prevent," she said.

Clarett's lawyers cited court decisions involving other sports such as baseball and basketball.

Current NFL rules would prevent Clarett from entering the draft until 2005.