CLARETT RULED OUT OF DRAFT NFL'S '3 YEAR RULE' IS BACK FOR NOW

Maurice Clarett can make other plans for the weekend. Mike Williams, too. They don't need to sit around waiting for the phone to ring. They are out of this year's NFL draft. For now, the NFL's rule that a player must be out of high school three years to be eligible for the draft is back intact after a federal court ruling in Manhattan Feb. 5 had struck it down. Hours after a hearing yesterday morning and five days before the draft, the 2nd U.

S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan issued a stay of federal judge Shira Scheindlin's ruling. "The appellant has demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits" when the appeals court issues its ruling, the panel wrote. There was no indication yesterday when that decision will be rendered. Clarett, a running back from Ohio State, was not expected to be any higher than a third-round pick. He helped the Buckeyes win the national championship in his freshman season, but was suspended by Ohio State for the '03 season for accepting improper benefits from a family friend and then lying about it to investigators. He sued on Sept. 23 to be included in this year's NFL draft. When the initial ruling went in Clarett's favor, the NFL issued new draft eligibility guidelines to include those who did not previously qualify. It did warn players that a stay could change things. The league's first attempt at a stay was denied by Scheindlin. Clarett and Williams, a sophomore wide receiver from Southern Cal, applied by the new March 1 deadline. So did a junior college player and six high school players. Williams was expected to be a mid-first round pick, although one general manager said yesterday he had him as a second-rounder on his draft board. None of the others was going to be drafted. Clarett's attorney, Alan Milstein, did not return phone calls after the stay was issued. Neither did attorneys for Williams, who yesterday - before the stay was issued - filed a lawsuit in federal court on Williams' behalf to get him in this draft. If the appeals court ultimately rules for Clarett, which doesn't seem likely, the NFL has said it then will hold a supplemental draft. That carried great weight with the three-judge panel, which said it "mitigates any harm to the appellee in the event of his ultimately prevailing in this appeal.

" This case eventually could go to the Supreme Court. The worst-case scenario for Clarett and Williams is they will have to wait for the 2005 draft to be selected. Williams and Clarett each hired agents, making them ineligible by NCAA rules. But Jeff Howard, an NCAA spokesman, said yesterday from Indianapolis that there is a "reinstatement process to become eligible" that starts with the "individual university seeking reinstatement of the student-athlete. The facts of each case will ultimately determine whether the student-athlete is in fact eligible to be reinstated with conditions.

" One of those conditions, for example, would be that if a player had accepted money from an agent, the money would have to be repaid. There have been cases in the past where the NCAA has reinstated players after they signed with agents. "We are pleased that the court has issued a stay," NFL executive VP Jeff Pash said in a statement. "As the court order says, we have 'demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits.

' We are grateful for the prompt attention the court has given to this matter and we await its decision on the merits. Pending that decision, Maurice Clarett, Mike Williams and the others who declared for the draft based on the earlier District Court decision are ineligible for this weekend's draft.

" The NFL quickly sent out a memo to the 32 clubs informing them Williams and Clarett are out of the draft. The tone of the hearing in the morning, with tough questions being asked by two of the three judges to Milstein, seemed to indicate a stay was forthcoming. Clarett's mother was in attendance. The league has been very protective of its draft eligibility rules, which have been in effect since 1990. It has a cozy relationship with college football, which, in effect, serves as a free minor league/developmental system. It also believes players in school less than three years are not physically or emotionally ready to play in the NFL. For now, this affects just Clarett and Williams. Ultimately, whichever way this goes, it will affect a lot more. Sidebar: What it all means Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett (left) and Southern Cal wide receiver Mike Williams were removed by the NFL from this weekend's draft. That came after a stay was issued yesterday on the Feb. 5 ruling throwing out the league's eligibility requirement that a player be out of high school three years to be included in the draft. Here's what it means for: CLARETT & WILLIAMS They can attempt to return to school. Both hired an agent, which makes them ineligible. Their schools would have to apply for them to be reinstated. If the U.

S. Court of Appeals rules in Clarett's favor, the NFL has said it would hold a supplemental draft. Otherwise, they will be eligible for the 2005 draft. LARRY FITZGERALD The Pitt sophomore was declared eligible for the draft by the NFL in a decision not connected with Clarett. He is expected to be the third overall pick Saturday by Arizona. THE NFL If the U.

S. Court of Appeals follows up its stay with a decision in the league's favor, the league's eligibility rules would be upheld. The NFL could also try to strengthen its rule in negotiations with the NFLPA, which agrees with the league on this issue. GIANTS & JETS Giants were not going to take Williams. For Jets, Williams was not likely. Clarett was not likely for either. COLLEGE FOOTBALL It would be adversely affected if players could leave, but like college basketball, it would survive. For now, it can take a deep breath.


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