NEW YORK A federal judge opened the door for Ohio State sensation Maurice Clarett and teenage football stars to turn pro, declaring Thursday that an NFL rule barring their eligibility violates antitrust law and ''must be sacked.''
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin said legal issues are so clearly in Clarett's favor a trial is unnecessary. The NFL said it will appeal, and it will probably try to block the ruling before the April draft.
Clarett sued the league last year to challenge its 1990 rule that a player must be out of high school three years to enter the draft.
''I was pleased that the rule was brought down,'' Clarett said at a news conference. ''It gives kids an opportunity to choose.''
Clarett's lawyer, Alan Milstein, called it a ''total victory.''
Clarett declined to say whether he'll enter the April draft after his lawyers advised him that Ohio State has warned even a declaration to join the NFL would rule out any chance of returning to college ball.
Jeff Pash, the executive vice president of the NFL, said the ruling left him ''really surprised'' but confident on appeal because its findings contradicted those of past court rulings.
NFL declares Larry Fitzgerald eligible
PITTSBURGH Heisman Trophy runner-up Larry Fitzgerald, the Pittsburgh sophomore who set NCAA receiving records in his two college seasons, was declared eligible Thursday for the NFL draft.
The NFL's ruling came on the same day a federal judge opened the door for running back Maurice Clarett to also turn pro despite playing only one season at Ohio State.
Under league rules, a player must be in college for three NFL seasons before he can be drafted. Fitzgerald left the Academy of Holy Angels in Minneapolis, Minn., midway through his senior year in 2001 and transferred to Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy to boost his grades for college. After spending nearly 1 1/2 academic years there, Fitzgerald signed with Pittsburgh and immediately became the most productive receiver in school history. He owns NCAA records for consecutive games with a touchdown catch (18) and most TDs receiving as a freshman and sophomore (34).
The NFL determined Fitzgerald was eligible because he would have graduated from high school in 2001 had he not transferred and thus is three years past his senior year of high school.
Fitzgerald declined comment after learning of the NFL's ruling. His father, Larry Sr., said, ''We choose to let them (the NFL) do what they do, and then we'll do what we do.''
With numerous NFL scouts saying Fitzgerald likely will be a top five pick, his departure from Pitt was considered a foregone conclusion for weeks.
Pitt's offense would be in a rebuilding mode next season even if Fitzgerald returned, with star quarterback Rod Rutherford, running back Brandon Miree and most of the offensive line departing.
''Whatever Larry decides, this university is going to support him wholeheartedly,'' assistant athletic director E.J. Borghetti said Thursday night. ''The opportunity to be a top-five pick can be a fleeting one in the game of football. But education is important to Larry's family, and whatever he decides to do, he will still work to his degree. It was important to his (late) mother and to his dad and I know it remains a priority of his.''
Fitzgerald's case differs from Clarett's. The Pitt star played two college seasons, while Clarett played only one. Clarett graduated early from high school in December 2001, and his lawyers contended that came before the end of the 2001 NFL season and thus made him eligible under the three-year rule.
The Clarett ruling, if it holds up on appeal, means high school football players and college underclassmen would be able to make the jump to the pros just as NBA, NHL and major league baseball players can.
Fitzgerald is not believed to have formally petitioned the league to be declared eligible. But his lawyer sent a letter to the NFL last month asking that his draft status be clarified.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Fitzgerald already has an NFL background. His father, a former college lineman, is a sports writer and radio-TV show host in Minneapolis, and his son was a Minnesota Vikings ball boy for several years while in high school.
While working in the Vikings' training camp, the younger Fitzgerald became friends with receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss. It was Carter, a former Ohio State star, who suggested he consider Pitt.
Pitt coach Walt Harris is a former Buckeyes assistant coach.
With Fitzgerald's departure now imminent, the Panthers will be losing their most productive player since the days of Dan Marino and Tony Dorsett.
Fitzgerald won the Biletnikoff Trophy as college football's top receiver last season and the Walter Camp Award as the nation's best player. He was a close runner-up to Oklahoma quarterback Jason White for the Heisman Trophy, nearly becoming the first sophomore to win the award.
Fitzgerald, a first-team All-American, caught 87 passes for an NCAA-leading 1,595 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, making at least one touchdown catch in all 12 regular-season games. His record streak of 18 consecutive games with a touchdown catch ended in a Continental Tire Bowl loss to Virginia that wrapped up Pitt's 8-5 season.
As a freshman, Fitzgerald made 69 catches for 1,005 yards and 12 touchdowns in leading Pitt to a 9-4 record its first nine-win season in 20 years. Pitt was 17-9 with Fitzgerald in its lineup.
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