Chet Simmons, commissioner of the U.S. Football League, said yesterday he told Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker's lawyer at their first meeting that the new league had a policy against signing players who have not completed their college eligibility and that the league would not approve a contract.
"The first real contact made by the attorney for the young man was sometime after the first of the year," Simmons said in a telephone interview. Simmons said he told the attorney at that time the USFL had a policy against signing undergraduates.
Walker's eligibility for his senior season at the University of Georgia is clouded, following a report published by the Boston Globe that Thursday night Walker signed a three-year contract worth about $5 million with the New Jersey Generals, then changed his mind, as the alleged contract reportedly allowed.
In Kansas City, Dave Berst, NCAA director of enforcement, said the NCAA would begin arranging interviews with Walker, his lawyer Jack Manton, Generals owner J. Walter Duncan and Simmons or other USFL officials.
"I don't look at this as an investigation, but we're going to try to develop more information than we have. Investigations take place in infractions cases," Berst said. "Coach (Vince) Dooley has been in touch with us and has invited us to satisfy ourselves that Herschel is eligible or ineligible.
"Personally, I tend to believe what the young man has said, but that doesn't mean we don't have the responsibility to find out as much as we can."
Under NCAA rules, a member school can ask the NCAA to investigate any situation at its campus or at another one.
Berst said he has assigned the case to an investigator, whom he declined to name, and that he expected interviews to begin within a week. He declined to say how long it would take to judge Walker's status.
Under NCAA rules, Walker would be ineligible if he signed a contract or even negotiated one beyond finding out his worth as a professional. NCAA rules also forbid a player's use of an agent, and Manton would be considered an agent if he negotiated for Walker.
Contacted yesterday at his Atlanta office, Manton declined comment on the grounds of his client-lawyer relationship with Walker.
In his first public statements since Walker's reported signing, Simmons said nothing Manton did during that first meeting would have violated NCAA rules. Simmons said he could not answer questions concerning subsequent events until the league completes its internal investigation, probably within 24 hours.
"I will answer the questions as eloquently as I can at that time," Simmons said. He said Steven Ehrhart, league counsel and director of administration, is conducting the investigation.
Asked if disciplinary action was possible against the Generals, Simmons said, "That's among the things I really want to find out. I would hope not. I would think not. It (the meeting in Athens, Ga., with Walker and Manton) may well have been the same set of circumstances of Ralph Sampson and Donald Dell last year."
Sampson, two-time college basketball player of the year, is completing his senior year at the University of Virginia. Dell is a Washington attorney whose subsidiary, ProServ, represents a number of pro athletes.
Simmons denied reports that last fall the USFL discussed pooling resources to sign Walker. "I was never privy to that kind of a meeting, if it took place," he said.
In Mission, Kan., Berst said the NCAA had decided to make public its conversation with Dooley and its plans to conduct interviews because this, so far, is not a case of investigating infractions. In those cases, the NCAA's rule is never to comment. Besides, Berst said, the NCAA was only confirming statements made by Dooley.
Berst said he does not intend to brief the press daily. "We will advise Georgia of our findings and conclusions along the way," he said. "I suspect that any announcement after this will come from Georgia."