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Early entry not in best interest of students, Rooney says

Steelers president Dan Rooney said allowing qualified players early entry into the NFL Draft would be good for the league, but not necessarily for the student/athlete and his university.

“It might be better for pro football to say we are going to take these kids and then we make the judgement (if they can play or not),” Rooney said. “But I think you have to look at this altruistically and say, ‘They should stay in school and get their education.’

“If you get a good kid, a kid who can play and he comes out … and I think (the NFL) should have to wait … there are kids who can play. They say this kid at Pitt (wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald), that he could be good.”

Rooney’s comments came in the wake of a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in New York by suspended Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett. Clarett, who rushed for 1,237 yards as a freshman last season, wants to be included in the 2004 draft, but NFL rules mandate that players entering the draft must be out of high school for three years.

The suit claims the NFL rule violates antitrust law and harms competition by excluding players who are shy of the three-year requirement.

“The rule is a restraint of amateur athletes who were strangers to the collective bargaining process,” the suit says.

Ohio State suspended Clarett for at least a season after an investigation determined he broke NCAA bylaws concerning benefits for athletes and lied to investigators.

Clarett believes he would have been a first-round pick in this year’s NFL Draft.

“Maurice just doesn’t have the options that other college students have because of what’s going on at Ohio State,” his attorney, Alan Milstein, told The Washington Post. “He has to do this in order to use his skills to play football as his livelihood. The next step is to wait for the league’s answer and then get it in front of a judge.”

Milstein filed the suit a day after meeting with NFL executives in Washington D.C.

In a statement released yesterday by the NFL, the league said:

“We expected to have an opportunity to respond after (Monday) night’s meeting and are disappointed that we were not permitted to do so,” an NFL spokesman said. “We do not believe that this lawsuit serves the best interests of Maurice Clarett or college football players generally, but we look forward to explaining to the court both the very sound reasons underlying our eligibility rule and the legal impediments to the claim that was filed.”

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has said that he believes the league will win the case.

Said Rooney: “From what I understand, the lawyers for the NFL think it’s a good case. They think it’s a positive thing, because you are doing it for the benefit of the student, No. 1, and the college, No. 2.

“The school makes a commitment to the kid and the kid should make a commitment to them, that they stay (in school), because of what they learn not only in football, but what they learn as far as being associated with students. The whole thing can only be beneficial to them.”

Since Kevin Colbert became director of football operations in 2000, the Steelers have drafted only two underclassmen – wide receiver Plaxico Burress and offensive tackle Marvel Smith. Both have advanced to become productive members of the starting lineup.

“There are many who are not qualified that take the step and then they are out (of the league),” Rooney said. “I know of a player that we took here as a junior and he was a pretty good player, but he would have been a lot better if he waited until he was senior. He would have grown up a lot more.”

(Mike Prisuta of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and The Associated Press contributed to this story.)


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