Herschel Walker will give instant credibility to the United States Football League because he is the best running back alive. By quitting the University of Georgia, Walker also will change the rules that for 50 years have kept undergraduates from playing professional football. This is a landmark case, however shabby its elements.

A kid had to lie. His lawyer helped him. A new league seduced them both and then said it was their fault for knocking on the door. Then the league approves the deal when it earlier rejected another just like it from a fellow with the misfortune of being named Willie Young and not Herschel Walker.

From colleges, we will hear cries of outrage. (Here we pause to laugh at the comedy of thieves crying, "Stop, thief.") From the high priests of the NFL we will hear promises they will never hire undergraduates (unless, that is, the wicked USFL keeps this up). You will think, before long, that the USFL and Herschel Walker have wrecked the very foundation of college football.

Not so. Not at all. Walker didn't want to lie. The college rules made him lie. His lawyer didn't want to be deceitful. The rules made it the best way to represent his client.

The USFL would have courted Walker in the sunlight rather than the shadows, except the college rules have been drawn by masters of illusion who want us to believe college football is Frank Merriwell and boolah-boolah and how 'bout them Dawgs?

Now the boss Dawg has turned pro, as he should have last season. The gates are open. Any undergraduate who thinks he's ready for the pros has precedent to defeat the leagues in antitrust court if they won't draft him.

"How would you like to be Willie Young's attorney sitting here with an antitrust suit?" said Bob Auler of Champaign, Ill., who is Willie Young's attorney (more on him in a minute).

The pros sign undergraduates in basketball, and what's so sacred about football that kids ought to be denied the right to get on with their life's work when they want to?

Only those who will not see can believe that college football rules are anything but unconstitutional restraints of an athlete's right to sell his services.

Those rules are why Herschel Walker lied to us. Under them, he was ineligible for college football the minute he negotiated with the New Jersey Generals. Law students and even would-be plumbers can argue with folks about starting salaries. But if you're Herschel Walker, the rules say you can only ask what your value is. For instance, you cannot negotiate by asking, "Mr. USFL, don't you think I'm worth $5 million?"

Walker knew a confession would cost him his fourth season at a university he loves. So, after deciding to back out of the deal, he was forced to lie when the news leaked that he had such talks with the USFL. "No offer," Walker said. "I didn't sign anything," he said. "I want to play my senior season," he said.

According to the Boston Globe, Walker signed a contract with 24 hours to change his mind. Two hours later, he did change his mind. He wanted to stay in school. He wanted to run in the Olympics. So Walker called a press conference to tell the lies that would satisfy the masters of illusion who dream up the NCAA rules. (The USFL, hearing those lies, dispatched a lawyer to Georgia to say, "Hey, he did, too, sign," causing Walker to 'fess up yesterday. Nothing personal, just business.)

Press the colleges' masters of illusion and they will admit, well, football is a billion-dollar entertainment business--but the players are student athletes, not professionals.

Right. Sure. We understand. If Walker produces $10 million in three seasons for Georgia--an educated guess--that's nice for the school. But under the rules, Walker gets only room, board and tuition. Right. Sure. He's not a professional, you got that right.

The illusion of amateurism is so important to the NCAA hypocrites that heaven only knows how many rules there are designed to make sure players don't make a buck when the school makes millions.

Not only that, the NFL has its own rules against signing players before their original class graduates. The NCAA and NFL say to players, "Look, kid. You may not like school. You may not be any good at it. The only way you're going to make a dollar is to play football. But you aren't going to get paid money in college, and you can't play in the NFL until your class graduates. Nobody said life is fair, kid."

The NFL likes the no-undergraduate rule for the same reason basketball people liked it (before a court said it was illegal). The colleges are minor leagues for the pros. When a player comes out, he's ready and, sometimes, more famous than the pros. It is a symbiotic relationship, with the colleges attached to the pros by the dreams of their players. The $10 million Georgia made is a byproduct of those dreams.

A few undergraduates turning pro each year won't hurt anyone. More important, it may help some people who aren't named Herschel Walker.

Willie Young is 26, married, the father of four children, an ex-Army sergeant who played in 1981 as a freshman at the University of Illinois. He couldn't get a job during the season because NCAA rules say so. He was broke. So he left school last summer.

George Allen, coach of the USFL's Chicago Blitz, signed the 6-foot-7, 270-pound tackle who was Illinois' most valuable defensive player.

The USFL commissioner immediately nullified the contract.

No undergraduates, Chet Simmons said.

So Willie Young went to play in Canada.

Simmons now says the USFL will approve the contract of Herschel Walker because league lawyers say Walker would win any court test that might come from disapproval of the contract.

Someone pointed out to Doug Kelly, the USFL director of communication, that Willie Young's case seems identical to Walker's. Yet Young was banished to Canada.

What's the difference in the Walker and Young cases?

"I knew you'd ask that," Kelly said. "Frankly, I don't know."

At last.

The truth from somebody.