Johnny Manziel Could Change the NFL’s Rules Forever

The attorney who lost the last major case over professional football’s age limit says the star quarterback could win in court and leave the college game for good

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Todd Spoth for TIME

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel scrambles away from a defender.

Johnny Manziel, the starting quarterback for the Texas A&M Aggies, does not appear to be long for the world of college football.

Even before so many unnamed autograph dealers claimed this week that they had paid Manziel money for his signature—and, thus, that Manziel had broken the NCAA’s rules—he had tweeted that he was looking forward to leaving College Station. In a pair of soul-searching magazine profiles, Johnny Football’s parents said that their son, the defending Heisman Trophy winner, was sick of the peculiar flavor of intense micro-fame that attends any amateur superstar in a small town.

So why doesn’t Manziel join an NFL team for training camp? Why didn’t he abandon college football, with his star still ascendant, to find a real paycheck through the NFL draft?

He can’t. He couldn’t. The NFL has an age limit, restricting eligibility to those players who have watched three full pro seasons elapse since they departed high school. Manziel, who graduated from Tivy High School in Kerrville, Texas, with the class of 2011, has one more year to go.

Presently, Manziel is practicing with his team, in advance of the upcoming season, like any other presumptive starter in college football would. Texas A&M has not suspended him; the NCAA has not ruled him ineligible. As far as what has actually been proven is concerned, Manziel is in the clear, hoping to lead the Aggies to their first-ever SEC title.

But what if Manziel and his parents became so tired of the current circus that the 20-year-old tried to beat the NFL’s age limit in court? Could he do it? The attorney who came closest to overturning the age limit says he’s waiting for the right case to come along and topple the rule once and for all.

The NFL has had some sort of age limit in place since 1921, and the rule has barely shifted in the near-century since. The biggest change came in 1990, when the NFL decided to allow college juniors (or those who had otherwise been out of high school for three years) into the draft pool.  But lopping a year off the age limit was just a temporary defense.

An antitrust suit eventually did come, 14 years later, from Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett. Clarett’s situation resembled Manziel’s. He had starred as a freshman—leading the Buckeyes to a national title—before various NCAA violations threatened his eligibility. Ohio State forced Clarett, who had also been charged with filing a false police report, to sit out all of the 2003 season. Thirteen days after his suspension came down, Clarett sued the NFL, challenging the age limit. He won in U.S. District Court in New York, and then he lost when his case reached the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court later declined to review the case.

“Was the Clarett case properly decided? No, absolutely not. I really don’t know why they reached the decision that they did,” Clarett’s former attorney, Alan Milstein, said Thursday. But, Milstein said, if anyone were to challenge the age limit before any court other than the Second Circuit, he’d stand a good chance of winning.

Without getting too technical: Milstein’s argument, which initially won over District Court judge Shira Scheindlin, employed a test named for Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey, a litigant in a prior NFL case. Any league exemption from federal labor laws had to meet three criteria: It had to affect primarily those already party to the collective-bargaining agreement, the issue needed to be addressed in collective bargaining (e.g. league facility and safety standards), and it had to result from good-faith arm’s-length bargaining. But, in a decision written by future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Second Circuit declined to employ Mackey, explaining that its justices never found it all that compelling.

Instead, the court reasoned, only Mackey’s third prong—that the exemption must result from good-faith bargaining—should matter. So long as the union signs off on something, it’s OK. Those who cannot join the union (in this case, players who have not been out of high school for three years) have no recourse.

Why does the union sign off on the age limit, anyway? From where it stands, the rule is no big deal—the presence of younger players in the league would not grant the union a larger share of total revenue, nor would it grow the number of available roster spots or increase the size of player pensions.

But the rule matters a lot to the league. It allows teams to scout players against reliable competition rather than spotty high-school talent, and it allows them to offload three years of important maturation to college programs. Front offices have a better chance of catching bad knees or bad attitudes, thanks to college football. In exchange, the colleges babysit players and get rich, making money both off the team directly and off the increased alumni interest any good football team motivates. It’s a great bargain for everyone except the players.

Back to the abandonment of Mackey: Milstein blames that decision on the whims of the New York-based Second Circuit, which also chose to take the case on an expedited basis and issue an injunction to keep Clarett from entering the NFL draft, despite the lower court’s ruling. (Had the appellate court waited to take the case, Clarett would have been drafted in 2004 but his victory would not have become a legal precedent.)  “They were hellbent on taking the case, for some reason,” Milstein said. Did that have anything to do with the NFL’s massive political influence? “Well, that’d be something maybe a reporter could speculate about, rather than a member of the bar,” Milstein said.

With a new plaintiff, though? In a different circuit court, far away from the league’s offices on Park Avenue? Milstein likes his chances. The age limit, he says, has no logical basis. “The argument, which they made in the Clarett case, that the age limit protects players? It’s total bullshit.” He said he made this point to the judge back then, that the league can’t honestly claim it cares much about player safety when 300-pound linemen are allowed to chase after quarterbacks the size of Doug Flutie. “Then the judge got up and left the bench. I sort of knew I was losing the case then.”

Manziel may not have a great reason to bring an action—by the time his case would resolve, the 2014 draft would be upon us, and, besides, his lawyer says he will play this college season as planned—but the next superstar caught up in an NCAA investigation might. And he just might win, too.

15 comments
alicehawkes
alicehawkes

" In exchange, the colleges babysit players and get rich, making money both off the team directly and off the increased alumni interest any good football team motivates. It’s a great bargain for everyone except the players."  The NFL benefits from more mature players and the players benefit with a free education to fall back on when football is no longer there for them

AtlantaGuy
AtlantaGuy

Yep - pretty clear the Second Circuit was on the take in the Clarett case - the opinion was written by then Circuit Judge and now Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  Everyone knows she is a pawn of management.


Just for fun maybe someone other than a disgruntled plaintiff's attorney can be quoted next time the applicability of the collective bargaining agreement to players' interests is addressed.

terryclifton1
terryclifton1

It is my hope that if the allegations are true, then Mr. Manziel be stripped of his Heisman Trophy and forced out of college football forever. This kid didn't come from another planet, he knew the rules, and the evidence is pretty strong that he knowingly broke them for financial gain. Pride comes before a fall.

RichBich
RichBich

No one is gonna change rules for this snot nosed, non compliant under aged alcoholic brat.

DanBruce
DanBruce

Repeatedly acting infantile is not going to help his cause.

buckeyerob72
buckeyerob72

You're assuming any NFL team wants him. How many Heisman winning QB's are good in the pros? He's no Drew Brees and he clearly makes poor choices off the field.

mandycat
mandycat

Here's a radical idea:  Perhaps the NFL could fund its own farm team system, just the way baseball does.   Universities could get back to, oh I don't know, teaching and research.  The corruption of big money football could be confined to professional sports instead of running downstream into colleges and high schools.  

vstillwell
vstillwell

The drama around Texas A&M is going to be hilarious this year. 

Nuadormrac
Nuadormrac

@terryclifton1 

Oh man, speaking of a lack of perspective, I can only hope you're not a cop.  So what would be your response to a charge of jay walking, attempting to get the court's to sentence someone to a 30 year jail sentence?  Or if you got out a yard stick and found someone parked just 1 inch closer then the 300 yards from an intersection, attempt to pull their drivers license, vs what the average cop would do with either a parking ticket, or in eyeing it up see that it looks close enough, and not bother trying to measure it to well...

If you are, with that attitude, I bet internal affairs and the courts just love hearing from you.  "Someone went 5 mph over the speed limit, rules are rules, so go get SWAT and the lynch mob ready...."

Seriously, autographs, and something that even if he did get paid, yes there's a NCAA rule in place, (just like there's a law against jay walking), but something which in the NFL would be an absolute non-issue, as the NFL allows endorsements and commercial spots.  Speaking of over-reaction, Joe Blow just crossed the street and he wasn't in a cross walk, go lock him up for 20 years now while you're at it.  Sheesh...

PrinceofThorns
PrinceofThorns

@terryclifton1What evidence? If there was strong evidence then the NCAA would do something about it already. Their only source, Drew Tieman, has been arrested multiple times with marijuana and has disappeared since. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? did he do it? probably. But where's the proof to show?

MattMallory
MattMallory

@terryclifton1 Who is the victim here? Are you incredibly strict on all rules, or just the ones that don't apply to you? The NCAA is run by greedy, politician-like crooks. Is that the side you are standing up for?

vlbasil
vlbasil

And he's only 6'0" and doesn't have the greatest throwing arm.  I hope he does go pro and runs into the Honey Badger or any other NFL defesive player and then the baby learns what it's like to be a real man when he gets sacked all the time.  He is allowed to get away with everything because he is a phenom.  He is an unattractive, over indulgent little boy.

Nuadormrac
Nuadormrac

@buckeyerob72 

Poor choices?  We're talking signing autographs here.  Meanwhile Aaron Hernandez murdered people, and though he has been released from the Patriots, and is serving a jail sentence, just how many OJ Simpsons, and others involved in domestic disputes, DUIs, or other such legal troubles are in the NFL?

And partying, in college, umm that's not uncommon.  And umm yeah, it didn't keep Rob Gronkowski outa the NFL either.  Man, with all we see in the news with people like Hernandez or Suh, this is the "dirt" they have on this guy.  Umm, ok...

buckeyerob72
buckeyerob72

Big time college football programs generally are self sufficient, fund other sports that nobody watches, like rowing, and give the extra back to the school's general fund. Research dollars come from an entirely different place.

Jersey_Guy
Jersey_Guy

In 2010, only 22 of the 120 football programs in Div I-A broke even or made a profit. The other 98 football progrms lost money and had to be subsidized out of funds that otherwise would have gone towards other sports or teaching. Even worse, every football program in Div I-AA lost money that year.

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