Next summer, if not this winter, someone will go to Herschel Walker and say, "Herschel, you're ready. Let's go get their money." If the kid from Georgia is as bright as all accounts make him out to be, he will be the first college football player to go to the pros early. But he will have to take the pros to court before they will let him play. The next few hundred words tell why.
Herschel Walker is 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds. He runs the 100 in 9.5. Should you take a quick glance at the television and see a brute in no. 34 barreling around right end, you know him. You can tell by the massive thighs. bHis power is tangible. His speed is astonishing. Yes, one look at the screen and you know it is Earl Campbell.
Only it isn't. It is Herschel Walker. At 18, Walker is ready for the National Football League. Players that young normally need time to mature physically. Look, if Herschel Walker gets any stronger by finishing four years of college, he could invade Afghanistan on foot and send the Russkies packing.
Herschel Walker is ready for the NFL.
Only misty-eyed romantics in love with boolah-boolah and rah-rah would have Walker wait for graduation. Let's say he has a plain old 1,500-yard year as a freshman this fall. Then the next year he wins the Heisman Trophy. What would he gain hanging around Athens two more years? He'd get tackled another 700 times probably, taking 700 runs off his professional life. He ought to play one more college season, then turn pro.
Magic Johnson was ready as a sophomore at Michigan State. At 17, Bobby Orr was ready. Straight out of high school, Willie Wilson was ready. And now Herschel Walker is ready.
There's a difference in these four fellows, though. Basketball, hockey, and baseball take talent whenever they find it, making rich young men of Johnson, Orr, and Wilson.
No such luck for Walker.
Article 12 of the National Football League bylaws says, in part, "No player shall be eligible to play or be selected as a player unless 1) all college eligibility of such player has expired . . . ."
That means Walker, and all college players, are locked into room-and-board jobs for at least four years.
"If a college football player wants to go into the pros, he has every legal right to do it," said Bob Woolf, the Boston attorney who specializes in sports.
The NFL's Article 12 is a transparently unconstitutional restraint on a player's right to make a living. The unfortunate lawyer arguing for the NFL in a trial of this restraint would have a better shot at tackling Walker in an open field than convincing a judge that football is due legal immunity not given to basketball, baseball, and hockey.
The wonder is that no one has ever tested the rule.
Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said, "It is just a freak of history, just one of those things that boggles the mind, that nobody has ever challenged the NFL on this. The NFL lawyers admitted to us once that if they were ever challenged, they probably would have to come up with a hardship draft like basketball's."
Jay Moyer, counsel for the NFL, confessed he is "somewhat surprised that there hasn't been more pressure on us over it." Moyer guesses players such as Billy Sims and Brad Budde haven't tested the NFL rule because "most who are able to play early find they are not disadvantaged by a college education. They do hone skills and prepare physically."
Garvey's guess is less kind to the NFL. The rule survives, he says, not because it is right or just; it survives because the NFL has so much money even Earl Campbell couldn't carry it all.
Garvey believes the law, as made in the Spencer Haywood basketball case of the late '60s, is unmistakably clear in its declaration that players are free from a league's arbitrary rules on eligibility to turn pro. So plain is the law that the original subterfuge of the National Basketball Association's "hardship draft" now has been stripped away in favor of the "undergraduate draft."
The draft itself, Garvey believes, is vulnerable. Bob Woolf: "The whole draft system could be defeated in court."
Surely as Article 12 is unconstitutional, so, too, is a draft that limits a player's choice of work to one team. Just this summer UCLA basketball star Kiki Vandeweghe said he wanted to work in Los Angeles or New York, nowhere else. Yet the new Dallas Mavericks drafted him, and Vandewegh had no choice. It was Dallas or go back to grad school. Had IBM, AT&T, Xerox and General Motors so conspired to limit the opportunity available to a prospective executive, the Justice Department would have gone into overdrive prosecuting antitrust cases.
So why doesn't someone test in court the legality of the NFL's Article 12?
Why doesn't someone test the antitrust implications of the draft?
"The NFL has very deep pockets," Garvey said. "Yazoo Smith challenged the draft in 1968 -- 1968! -- and the case is still at the district court level. The NFL can get up, say, $10,000 from each team to outspend any plaintiff. If a college kid knows the NFL can hold him up in court for two or three years, he'll shy away from filing suit."
Jay Moyer, NFL counsel, very solemnly: "It would take the force of law to make us draft a college-eligible player. We would do all we could possibly do to prevent it."
Woolf says the NCAA is adamantly opposed to the drafting of undergraduate football players. That is because football bears so much of a school's financial burden for athletics. Moyer says the NFL is "under a lot more pressure to keep Article 12 than to abandon it, pressure even from the U.S. Congress, where in the 60's we avoided legislation on the issue only by assuring a committee we would keep the rule."
At bottom this is a money issue.
The colleges don't want Herschel Walker and Billy Sims to stay in school to become brain surgeons. They want the Heisman guys to take them to big bowl games and get them on national television.
The pros want the colleges to stay strong and healthy because they are a farm system that doesn't cost a cent.
But what happens when the money interests collide?
What happens when, say, the woebegone New Orleans Saints finish a second straight 0-16 season and announce they will use their No. 1 draft choice to sign Herschel Walker, the sophomore sensation from Georgia?
With Walker, the Saints would win games. With Walker, the Saints would sell tickets.
All the Saints need do is convince Walker that Article 12 is easily defeated. It should be a snap to get an injunction against the NFL while the case is in court, allowing Walker to play until a decision is handed down.
Then the young man could carry the ball 300 times a season for maybe $300,000 more than Georgia could give him.