Friday, September 26, 2003

Sports: Every Rule Has an Exception

Eric McErlain, who runs the Unofficial Official Blog of the Maurice Clarett case (with this site running a close second), points to Dave Anderson's New York Times story on one player that got around the NFL's three-year rule in 1991. Well, sort of:
But two years before that 1993 agreement was signed, Eric Swann, a 300-pound defensive lineman who had been out of high school in Lillington, N.C., for only two years, was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals with the sixth pick in the first round of the 1991 draft.

Swann, who never enrolled in college, had been playing semipro football for the Bay State Titans, according to the Cardinals media guide, while lugging pipe for an electric company and running errands for a restaurant.

The three-year rule had been inserted in the N.F.L. constitution in 1990, but when Swann's eligibility for the draft developed in 1991, the N.F.L. was involved in other legal cases, notably those involving Freeman McNeil and Marvin Powell. It chose to ignore Swann's situation. Despite chronic knee injuries, Swann, a Pro Bowl alternate in 1993, endured for a decade with the Cardinals and the Carolina Panthers.

The N.F.L. will argue that Swann's arrival predated the 1993 collective bargaining agreement, but it remains a precedent that could haunt the league in the Clarett case. Why is the three-year rule so vital now, the judge may want to know, when Swann was out of high school for only two years when he was drafted?
McErlain argues that Swann's case demonstrates why the three-year rule is inherently arbitrary, and that a "player's right to try" and make it in the NFL, regardless of age, should be protected. The issue, though, is whether the government should force the NFL to afford Maurice Clarett that "right". As I've said all along, everyone seems concerned about Clarett's rights, yet the NFL's rights as a business owner are simply disregarded.

Another thing to consider: Much of the anti-NFL position in the press stems from the view that college football provides a free minor league to the NFL, and that this is inherently unfair. You won't get any disagreement from me there. But one reason--a big reason, if you ask me--that the NFL doesn't develop its own minor league is the same antitrust laws folks consider Maurice Clarett's liberator.

The reason baseball has such a successful minor league system is because that system is expressly exempt from the antitrust laws. Without that exemption, Major League Baseball would have little incentive to maintain a proprietary minor league. The minor leagues are the last vestige of the old "reserve clause". The original reserve clause basically assigned a player's rights in perpetuity to the first Major League team that acquired them. There was no free agency under this system. The rise of the player's union put an end to that nonsense. But what remains is the ability of clubs to sign players--many just out of high school--and assign them to affiliated minor league clubs. This creates value that justifies the Major League teams substantial investment in supporting their lower affiliates. This, in turn, allows the minor leagues to survive, and in many markets thrive.

Hockey has a similar system. Why it's never been challenged under U.S. antitrust laws I couldn't say; most likely the cross-border nature of hockey's minor leagues--Canada's unlikely to challenge the system under its antitrust laws for cultural reasons--makes it a non-issue. Football and basketball, however, are U.S.-based sports with no antitrust exemption. Thus, they are legally restrained from emulating baseball's successful model.

If the antitrust laws were repealed, and the NBA and NFL were free to operate their own minor leagues, situations like Clarett's would quickly become a thing of the past. Players in those sports could bypass the corrupt amateurism of the NCAA and try their hand in truly developmental professional leagues. Yet you're unlikely to hear much call for antitrust repeal among the sports media elite.

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