Publish date:


Two of basketball's best undergraduates turn pro, others may, and football is in trouble, too, following a court decision

There is trepidation and confusion in college sport these days, for the old order no longer prevails. Not only does it not prevail, for the time being the old order has been declared to be against the law—potentially as illegal as smoking pot, kiting stocks or fixing prices. Suddenly basketball teams are collapsing: Mississippi's sophomore superstar is gone, Indiana's wonder soph has told the pros come take me, and so has Massachusetts' best player ever, a junior. Nor is college football safe. Indeed, coaches and athletic directors are frankly facing up this week to the possibility of a major change in college football and basketball programs.

The very structure of big-time college athletics is a frail thing. Its morality is uneasy, its accommodations many; it cloaks its worries and skirts its issues. And it thrives. But because of its fragile nature, it is ill-equipped to cope with a major dilemma, and now it faces one.

The reason for the consternation in college sport is a sharply-worded legal opinion issued late last month by Federal Court Judge Warren J. Ferguson of Los Angeles. In it he swept away one of the most cherished verities of U.S. athletics—the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not sign to a professional contract any football or basketball player who has not passed four years beyond his high school graduation. Judge Warren abolished the commandment during hearings on the celebrated antitrust suit of Spencer Haywood against the National Basketball Association, a suit built upon the sound ground that the NBA had acted to restrain young Haywood's pursuit of a livelihood with the Seattle Super-Sonics simply because two years before he had signed a professional basketball contract with Denver of the ABA while a mere sophomore at the University of Detroit.

The Haywood suit seemed important in professional basketball circles, bearing as it did upon the war between the rival NBA and ABA, but it paled into insignificance—and was promptly settled out of court—when Judge Ferguson suddenly brought the entire system, entente and rapport of the college-pro sport world into legal question. What the judge did was raise the issue of the legal rights of the one group that has been ignored by the gentlemanly agreements between the pro and college sports Establishments: the undergraduate players.

It is true that the so-called four-year rule has been in effect since the days of Red Grange and in general quite rigidly observed by even the most avaricious and ambitious sharks in the seas of professional football and basketball. There are two compelling reasons why the pro leagues have so consistently kept their hands off undergraduate athletes: 1) the policy allows the pros to stand on the side of the educational angels by giving a youngster full opportunity to finish his college education—though many never do—and 2) it automatically creates a vast, and free, farm system in which future professionals can be polished as performers and even premerchandised as celebrities for years before they move into the big leagues. The four-year rule has thus been more or less carved in granite in the bylaws of the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the American Basketball Association, too, though that carving may be more in soapstone than in rock (the ABA was by no means above softly employing the rule's "hardshipcase" exception, i.e., Haywood).

But now any player—freshman, sophomore or junior as well as a drafted senior—can be signed by the pros, for Judge Ferguson offered no equivocation in his ruling. He wrote: "The court orders that partial summary judgment in favor of plaintiff Haywood be granted, to the limited extent of ruling that the NBA's four-year college rule—as embodied in Sections 2.05 and 6.03 [of NBA bylaws]—is a violation of Section I of the Sherman Act." And to be certain this could not be misunderstood, he added: "Sections 2.05 and 6.03 of the bylaws of the National Basketball Association are declared to be illegal...."

So it was no longer a matter of personal choice, individual hardship, hard-nosed practicality or even warm-hearted morality whether or not the ABA's Memphis Pros went ahead and signed Mississippi's brilliant sophomore, Johnny Neumann, for a reported $2 million two weeks ago. It was a matter of law that Memphis had the right to do so and that Neumann had the right to sign. Any application of the four-year rule as a method of rejecting Neumann's contract would have been an attempt to enforce a "group boycott" against the boy—and that is illegal. Thus, when ABA Commissioner Jack Dolph attempted to block Neumann's contract he was acting outside the law, at least according to Judge Ferguson's interpretation. And when NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy told his league directors two weeks ago that "undergraduates will not be eligible for the 1971 draft," he, too, would seem to violate the Sherman Antitrust Act. And, yes, when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle said recently that he would not approve any contracts made between any of his teams and an undergraduate, he was speaking from a dubious legal base. Judge Ferguson's point is, of course, that the "group boycott" effect of the four-year rule works to arbitrarily block a young athlete from making a living as a professional "even though he does not desire to or may not be eligible to attend college, and even though he does not desire to and is ineligible to participate in collegiate athletics." The four-year rule, in effect, restrains an individual from free exercise of his full potential as an athlete.

The shock of it all has made a profound impression upon the American sports community. Pete Rozelle issued an uncharacteristically overblown declaration: "I can't believe a practice that is for the protection of the colleges could be legally ruled invalid. If it could be, of course, it would no doubt destroy college football and basketball." That is hardly the case. As one college conference commissioner said wryly: "We could always go back to using students as athletes." But there are many who share Rozelle's dark view of the future.

Gary Colson, the athletic director of Pepperdine College, says, "I can't understand how one man can sit in a chair and make this decision. The whole bubble will burst in college athletics if this prevails. This is another step toward destruction." Speaking a bit more calmly, Northwestern's Alex Agase, college football's 1970 Coach of the Year, says, "This could eliminate all superstars from college competition." Tommy Prothro, who left the UCLA football coaching job to take over the Los Angeles Rams, sounds most desperate of all. "It's a disaster for everyone," he says. "It's a disaster for the best players in college football. It's a disaster for the colleges. It's a disaster for pro football."

UCLA's John Wooden is almost as pessimistic. "I've feared this for years," he says. "And I've felt all along such a thing would hurt professional basketball by destroying its feeding ground. Anyway, it would be a mistake, to my mind, for the great majority of boys to sign. It would definitely hurt them."

Joe Williams, who is now the basketball coach at Furman University but who a year ago coached a $1,500,000 player, Artis Gilmore, at Jacksonville, makes another vital point: loss of the four-year rule would change college recruiting. "This would take a great deal of incentive out of recruiting good players," he says. "The amount of time it takes to sign a good player is unbelievable, and the constant signing by pros of underclassmen with eligibility left will ruin your incentive for developing superstars, since they wouldn't be with you more than a couple of years."

Even though there is this deep concern, there was also emerging last week on the part of college athletic officials a surprising recognition that their undergraduate players do have some rights as potential professional athletes. The dubious nature of the "Do or Die for Old Siwash" attitude was being recognized for what it was, at least in the case of the truly talented player, the potential pro star whose career could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to him. Jack Kraft, Villanova's basketball coach, says, "I think a player owes it to himself to complete college, but I can't blame a boy who signs an early contract. I've been into some of these fellows' houses and believe me, if I put in a life of 17 or 18 years there and somebody offered me a contract, how do I know I wouldn't accept it? You just can't blame the boy at all."

Fred Shabel, the athletic director at the University of Pennsylvania, has made a complete about-face on the issue. "A few years ago I absolutely thought it was a healthy rule that undergraduates should finish their education," he says. "But now I don't see where I can sit here and deny a young man that kind of choice. I think their education is very important, but I don't think I can put myself in a position of denying anyone his right to chart his own life."

Press Maravich, LSU's basketball coach and father of Pete, puts it in straight enough English: "If there's a lot of bread to the situation, I don't see how any coach can recommend that a kid not sign. I would have told Pete to sign if he had been a sophomore. I tell you, it's all survival of the fittest. Like the jungle. Nobody worries about a kid after he graduates. You can always get the education, but you can't always get the money."

Marquette Basketball Coach Al McGuire has a prime target for undergraduate recruiters in sophomore Jim Chones and suggests he would advise Chones to turn pro if the price were fair. "I've looked in his refrigerator and in mine, and mine had meats, pastries and other goodies. There are two sides to this street."

Dean Smith, basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, says flatly, "A lot of coaches won't agree with me, but kids do go to college for financial security, and if they get a chance at a good contract they should take it. To me, it's just like a student majoring in business administration having a chance to leave school and become a vice-president at General Motors."

In all the discussion of Judge Ferguson's opinion, there is a constant, wistful hope voiced by what might be called the firm traditionalists among the college coaches and administrators that somehow, someday there will be some agreement, some understanding, something arranged between the professionals and the colleges which will again assure a university that when it gets a star who can pack its stadiums or field houses, it can hold on to him for four years. Usually, it is the NCAA whose name is invoked as the potential keeper of the collegians' turf. However, it turns out that Walter Byers, executive director of the NCAA, has not the slightest intention of getting his organization involved in this particular situation. At least, not if he can avoid it.

"I don't propose to fight this," Byers says. "I think Judge Ferguson was on sound legal ground. Remember, the four-year rule was not put in by the colleges, but by the pros to enable them to secure talent for themselves with a minimum of inconvenience. I suppose I might have fought this 10 years ago, but not now. Some of our schools want us to go to Congress if Judge Ferguson's ruling holds up. That's just whistling up a wind tunnel. If a student athlete signs professionally, we wish him well. If they put enough zeroes on the price tag, I suppose he has to take it. I've been up and down this street for 21 years, and I've never found more than two or three professional owners who thought the first thing about the welfare of college athletics—and we've made a lot of millionaires of athletes and owners." So much for using the NCAA as a go-between with the pros. Walter Byers declines, with reason.

As the leaders of college sport discuss the situation, there has emerged a pattern of remarkable bitterness—even downright hatred—toward the moguls of professional sport. For example, Pete Peletta, athletic director at the University of San Francisco, says, "It's a prostitution of athletes and athletics: these moneybags should go on trial." UCLA Athletic Director J. D. Morgan snaps, "This is a grave danger to all athletics. It's a very disturbing thing. It's the parents eating their young, so to speak, before they develop maturity." And Wayne Duke, the normally serene commissioner of the Big Eight, is on the point of rage as he speaks of the savage rivalry between the NBA and the ABA: "It's basically the same pattern as followed by pro football—the AFL wanted a merger with the NFL so it went around dangling big sums of money before college players. A lot of clamor arose over the signings, the merger was achieved, both leagues abandoned the big offers and everybody said aren't the pros great guys to stop doing what they had been doing. The same thing will happen in basketball—they'll merge and go back to signing seniors only and everyone will say how decent they are, when really all they are ever thinking about is their own selfish interests. We in college athletics should show up the pros for what they are. I'm for going to war against them, using legal and all other means."

Even if the colleges were to declare war, it is a little difficult to know just what weapons they would use—or even whom they would attack, for their difficulty is now not only with the pros, but with the Sherman Antitrust Act. But the pros are at least an enemy they can see, and some doughty types advocate firing away. John McKay, USC's football coach, says the colleges could put up Keep Off signs around campuses. "If pro football takes undergraduates," says McKay, "you can be sure their people would never be allowed on college campuses. You know, you just might even see a fan boycott of the pros if they invade the college ground too much. I feel that pro fans are first college fans. But the real solution to it is for those pros to act like decent people."

As of today, the battle between the NBA and the ABA does not quite lend itself to attitudes of decency, though a merger of the leagues seems imminent. As Chicago Attorney Arthur Morse, who has acted as an agent for many athletes, says: "The price war will end. But it is a terrible thing for now. It is a cancer created by the two leagues and terminated by the two leagues. They create the cancer by creating an insatiable jungle, an unrealistic market for basketball players. And while they are doing it they are meeting behind closed doors to merge and terminate the cancer. But the solution isn't merger, really. The answer is sensible, honest administration of your business. And that will never happen. You know why and I know why— because Greed, thy name is legion."

But what of the group that is most affected by the changing rules of the draft game—the undergraduate stars? The time was when they might well have said college mattered above all, that they owed a debt to the schools that had given them scholarships, that their education would be a lifelong treasure and treasury. But, like some college athletic administrators, their reactions now are more honest and pragmatic. The great majority of stars agree on one thing—it is up to the individual player, and each case is different. Their attitudes may come as a surprise to some of their coaches and to followers of their teams.

A few of the players, of course, have already made their decisions: college basketball's top scorer, Johnny Neumann, whose father is seriously ill, has gone to Memphis. "I hope the people of Ole Miss can understand my situation," he said. Indiana's brilliant sophomore, George McGinnis, after a month of what he describes as 24-hour-a-day pressure, said, "I remember shooting out in the dust, getting blisters, getting cut, getting tired. A man would be crazy not to take a million dollars or more." And he announced he will sign with the highest bidder. That was the position, too, of Julius Erving of Massachusetts, who seems headed for the ABA Virginia Squires while his coach can merely say, "I am very disappointed...but I have no ill feelings."

One articulate spokesman for the players is Tom Burleson, a 7'4" freshman center at North Carolina State. "It is more an individual situation rather than a hard-and-fast rule." he says. "Those happy with college shouldn't leave, but if a player is letting college get the best of him, he is more apt to sign. I think I owe it to the college to stay, but in the long run it's to the player's benefit rather than the college's. The athletic grant is not binding by law, but when you accept a grant-in-aid I think you do have a moral obligation to the coach."

Many disagree. Says Steve Mitchell, Kansas State's sophomore star: "I've got to keep in mind the possibility of a merger between the two leagues, because if that happens soon they won't be throwing all that big money around. When I first came to Kansas State I felt I was obligated to stay and play four years because they gave me a scholarship. What changed my mind was when Cotton Fitzsimmons, the coach who recruited me, quit suddenly to become head coach with the Phoenix Suns because it meant a big raise to him. I decided from then on I'd look out for myself first, too."

Henry Wilmore, a sophomore star for the Michigan basketball team, plans to stay on and get his degree, but when asked if he was doing this to fulfill an obligation to the school, he says, "I don't feel I owe it to Michigan, I owe it to myself." Paul Westphal, a second-team All-America junior guard for USC, puts it in plain dollar figures. "No one has offered me any $2 million," he says, "but you would sure have to think about that for a long time. You really might have to give up 26 college games for that. I want to coach some day and a degree is essential, but I don't think anyone could blame anyone for signing at some of the dollar figures we're hearing." And Westphal's dynamic teammate, junior Center Ron Riley, says, "It all depends on how much money they offer. You can always come back and get your degree." ("There appear to be rough times ahead," notes USC Coach Bob Boyd. "A coach would never be able to plan with certainty from year to year. We would never know where we stand.") Ron Thomas, a junior forward at Louisville, says, "Well, I know I wouldn't give up my last season. At least I don't think I would. Not unless it was a big offer." How big? "Oh, at least half a million." Says Illinois sophomore Nick Weatherspoon, "The only person you owe something to is yourself, because the university can't make a living for you. You have to do what you think is best—for you." And Allan Hornyak, Ohio State's superb sophomore guard, says: "You offer a certain amount of money and any kid will jump at it. It would take a lot of education to make a fella worth $2 million, for example, wouldn't it? I wouldn't hesitate if they came to me."

As things stand now, no sophomore or junior star—in basketball or football—can be protected from the men offering money. And the colleges are almost entirely without recourse. Brad Snyder, basketball coach at Northwestern, sums up with frustration: "The pros can't just come on these campuses and raid these kids. There's no sense being in the game if it's going to be like that. It's all a matter of dollars, with no regard for values. Athletics isn't supposed to be played for dollars. But I guess that's what it is nowadays."

The truth, of course, is that athletics at this level is indeed played for dollars—even at Northwestern. Lots of dollars. That is one of the issues that the famous coaches, and the schools striving for the Top 20 listings, tend to skirt, or used to. But Judge Ferguson may have evoked, accidentally, a fresher, stronger attitude within college sport itself. There is a hint that both schools and coaches are getting tired of their own dollar rat race—the million-dollar budgets, the year-round recruiting, etc., etc. They want to be honest with their finest players, to be able to say, "Turn pro," if that seems best. And they know that big-time college sport will survive, new rules or no. Many teams might lose a star, but, as UCLA's J.D. Morgan puts it: "We'll survive by numbers alone."

The odds are things won't come to that. Somewhere, once again, a college-pro sport accommodation is likely to be found. Meanwhile, one can ponder the ironies of the worst extreme, as voiced by Illinois Basketball Coach Harv Schmidt: "The true amateur may be reestablished."


JUDGE WARREN J. FERGUSON: The NBA's four-year rule is hereby declared illegal.


NCAA BOSS BYERS: We don't propose to fight this.


RAMS COACH PROTHRO: It's a disaster for everyone.


USC COACH McKAY: Time to post the "Keep Off" signs.


INDIANA'S GEORGE McGINNIS: Waiting to go with the highest bidder.


REBEL JOHNNY NEUMANN: Two million reasons to move to Memphis.