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The future of the NFL?

Posted: Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The future of the NFL arrived overweight and unprepared.

So there's that to look forward to.

''I lead by example, work hard day in and day out, and go 200 percent every practice,'' Maurice Clarett said.

OK, maybe he didn't mean EVERY day and EVERY practice, because Clarett arrived at the league's scouting combine in Indianapolis last week carrying a few extra pounds and, despite a few months off, let it be known he wasn't ready to work out for the talent evaluators gathered there.

Instead, he invited them to drop by his personal workout in Columbus, Ohio, the first week of April, by which time Clarett absolutely, positively, cross-his-heart-and-hope-to-die, promises to be ready.

''I'm going to take these next four weeks and get back to eating right and training right and try to take my training up a notch,'' he said.

Clarett played his last football game for Ohio State some 13 months ago and was pointed toward the NFL as early as last September, once it became increasingly clear his chances of playing a second season for Ohio State were slim and none. Instead of putting to rest any questions about his attitude since a scrape with the law forced him to the sideline, Clarett has inherited a whole other set of them.

It might not seem fair to saddle a 20-year-old with the kind of burdens already weighing down Clarett, because he's hardly the first underclassman seeking a spot in the league, and plenty of the seniors taken in previous drafts have made immaturity the hallmark of their careers. Then again, barring a successful appeal by the NFL, Clarett's victory in court guarantees that more and more kids in similar situations will be trying to follow him through the suddenly wide-open door.

In the last decade, an average of 33 underclassmen were eligible for the draft each year. In the last two years, even with league rules still in place requiring players to be out of high school for three years to be eligible, the number has climbed into the 40s. Now, with Clarett's lawsuit effectively striking down any minimum-age requirement, another dozen or so newly qualified players could enter the draft by the March 1 deadline.

In that sense, Clarett can't avoid being viewed as a sign of things to come, and already a few league veterans don't like what they see.

''I think what you're going to see is a number of guys who either don't like school, don't feel that good about school, get into tough situations at school those are going to be the guys that come out early,'' Colts coach Tony Dungy said.

''I think we're encouraging people to take the easy route,'' he added a moment later, ''when the easy route is not always the best.''

Nobody in their right mind would tell a kid to pass up the kind of money the NFL hands out unless investing another college season or two would double the payout. Last season, a half-dozen players projected as first-round picks, including running backs Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown of Auburn and Cedric Benson of Texas, opted to return to school for their senior years.

Clarett, too, was projected as a future first-round draft pick in January 2003, after leading Ohio State to the national championship, but that assessment was based on potential at least as much as on his body of work. He was on the small side to begin with, and there are still concerns about his durability. The consensus now, after a long layoff and little to show for it, is that Clarett has slipped into the second and perhaps even the third round. That little dip could cost him millions.

Of course, none of it ensures a gloomy future for Clarett or any of the youngsters who try to cash in early. But it's clear what was once hailed as a cause on behalf of the many has been scaled back to a fight for personal survival.

On the day Clarett filed suit against the league to gain entrance to the draft, Jim Brown, the Hall of Fame running back and self-appointed consigliere to the family, told anybody who would listen that creating opportunities for other youngsters played a big part in the youngster's decision.

''I think that's a big statement. Most people just want to take the money and shut up. He understands he can be a pioneer,'' Brown added at the time. ''He wants to help other players.''

But Clarett assured the NFL gathering that schoolwork isn't the only thing he's left behind.

''I'm not thinking like I'm a groundbreaker of any type,'' he said. ''I'm in a normal place like everybody else and just hoping some club gives me the same opportunity they give somebody else.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write him at jlitke@ap.org.



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