February 24, 2013
by Chuck Haven
Jadeveon Clowney, the barely 20 year-old defensive end from the University of South Carolina, has been the topic of quite a bit of discussion in recent weeks. Clowney earned the title of SEC defensive player of the year for the 2012-2013 season as a sophomore and sparked discussion about Clowney being the first overall pick in this year’s National Football League (“NFL”) draft. This speculation is all for naught, however, as the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement Article 6 Section 2(b) requires that a player wait at least three full college football seasons before becoming eligible to play in the NFL. The NFL has thisrule to prevent players who are not fully developed from entering the league and being injured. However, each college season players risk career ending injuries without receiving a salary. Some have wondered aloud whether Clowney should challenge this minimum age restriction, but such action would likely be a waste of both time and money.
Jadeveon Clowney (AP Photo)
Age Minimums in Professional Sports
Although the NFL has the highest age minimum of all professional sports leagues in America, it does not have the only one. The National Basketball Association requires that players must be at least 19 years old and 1 year removed from high school. Major League Baseball allows players to be drafted right out of high school. However, players attending 4-year colleges must complete their junior year or be 21 years old. Junior College players may enter the draft without restriction. These age minimum restrictions are detailed in league collective bargaining agreements of the respective leagues and have been challenged before to no avail.
Maurice Clarett Challenges the NFL Age Minimum
Most recently, the NFL age restriction was challenged in the case of Clarett v. National Football League. In 2003, Ohio State University running back, Maurice Clarett, was suspended for the season after a string of off field incidences. Clarett was only a sophomore, but realized that his time at Ohio State had run its course and decided to attempt to enter the NFL Draft. To do so, Clarett filed suit in the Southern District of New York, claiming that the NFL’s age restriction was a violation of antitrust laws. Clarett won the initial trial, and the NFL appealed to the United States District Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
The Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision, determining that the NFL’s age minimum was valid and could remain in operation. In reaching this conclusion, the court first pointed out that certain things can be collectively bargained between a union and employer that are beyond the reach of antitrust legislation. Congress favors collective bargaining agreements holding jurisdiction over industries so that judicial intervention is not needed nearly as frequently. In the NFL’s case, its collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) is negotiated with the NFL Player’s Association, which represents the interests of all 32 teams. Due to the Congressional preference that industries monitor themselves as much as possible, the age minimum that is negotiable at all NFL collective bargaining sessions is considered beyond antitrust legislation.
That Clarett was not yet in the NFL, and therefore did not have a say in the current CBA, did not render the age restriction unfair. The minimum age of incoming players has an effect on the wages and working conditions of current NFL players, and is therefore a reasonable bargaining subject. That the restriction places a hardship on prospective employees does not render the restriction impermissible, so long as there is not a violation of federal laws prohibiting labor practices such as discrimination laws.
The Age Minimum Going Forward
It is likely that any new suit on this subject would come to the same conclusion. It seems that the only way for the minimum age requirement to be lifted would be through the collective bargaining process, and it doesn’t seem like the NFL or the NFL Player’s Association would have much of an interest in letting younger players into the league. NFL teams would have more scouting to do and would have to consider taking risks on players that only have limited training and development at a high level. In addition, the Player’s Association would have no reason to want younger players to be eligible to play in the league, as every incoming rookie is competing to take a spot from a veteran that is already represented in the Player’s Association. Barring some sort of change in professional sports antitrust exemptions, it seems that the NFL age minimum is likely here to stay.
 Clarett v. Nat’l Football League, 369 F.3d 124 (2d Cir. 2004)