A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit yesterday reversed the February ruling by a federal judge that temporarily made former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett and former University of Southern California wide receiver Mike Williams eligible to play in the NFL this year.

The judges' decision would keep Clarett and Williams out of the league until the 2005 season. The two players are eligible to enter next year's draft under the NFL's rule requiring a player to be at least three years removed from high school.

Alan C. Milstein, Clarett's attorney, said by telephone that he would file a motion, probably today, to have the case heard by the full appeals court. Clarett eventually could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Williams plans to file a separate lawsuit in Tampa to attempt to get into the league this year, said a source familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the legal maneuvering is ongoing. Williams's Tampa-based agent, Michael Azzarelli, said previously that Williams would take legal action if developments in the Clarett case kept him out of the NFL this year.

But for now, Clarett and Williams are in limbo, unable to enter the NFL and ineligible to return to the college game because they entered the draft and hired agents.

"The Court of Appeals' unanimous decision leaves no doubt that legal challenges to the NFL's long-standing eligibility rules have no basis whatsoever," Jeff Pash, the NFL's executive vice president and chief in-house counsel, said in a written statement released by the league. "We are grateful for the Court's prompt attention to our appeal, but not at all surprised by the result, which represents a complete victory for the National Football League."

Judges Sonia Sotomayor, Robert D. Sack and Lewis A. Kaplan backed the NFL's contention that its draft-eligibility rule should be exempt from antitrust scrutiny because it resulted from collective bargaining between the league and the players' union.

"The NFL argues that federal labor law favoring and governing the collective bargaining process precludes the application of the antitrust laws to its eligibility rules," the judges wrote in a 35-page decision. "We agree."

The judges rejected Clarett's claims that the rule is an unreasonable restraint on the labor market, and that the NFL players' union cannot bargain on his behalf because he is not a member.

"As a permissible, mandatory subject of bargaining, the conditions under which a prospective player, like Clarett, will be considered for employment as an NFL player are for the union . . . and the NFL to determine . . . Clarett is in this respect no different from the typical worker who is confident that he or she has the skills to fill a job vacancy but does not possess the qualifications or meet the requisite criteria that have been set," the judges wrote.

U.S. District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled Feb. 5 in Clarett's lawsuit that the NFL's draft-eligibility rule violated antitrust laws. Scheindlin's ruling temporarily opened the draft to college freshmen and sophomores and high school players. Williams was the only prominent player to take advantage of the ruling and enter the draft.

But the appeals-court judges granted the NFL's request for a stay of Scheindlin's ruling, keeping Clarett and Williams out of the April draft, and two U.S. Supreme Court justices denied Clarett's request for emergency relief to have the stay lifted.

USC Coach Pete Carroll said the school would put the process to appeal Williams's NCAA eligibility in motion. "We've been preparing for this outcome for a while," Carroll said, according to the Associated Press. "Mike was aware of this possibility. He'll now look to get reinstated into college by the NCAA."

Azzarelli has said that the NFL should consider Williams's eligibility separately from Clarett's because Williams was, in effect, invited to enter the league. But NFL officials have said they warned Williams they would bar him from the league this year if the Clarett decision were reversed.

Ohio State officials have said they do not foresee Clarett playing for the school again. His agent, Jimmy Sexton, declined to comment yesterday about what Clarett will do if he's kept out of the NFL this year.