National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle said yesterday that former Georgia running back Herschel Walker will not be eligible for the NFL draft until 1985, unless he graduates from college before the 1984 draft.
But Rozelle also said the NFL's draft rules are subject to court challenge, and he said NFL owners would likely discuss them in light of the Walker case at a regularly scheduled meeting next month in California. Walker signed a three-year, $5 million contract Wednesday to play with the New Jersey Generals of the U.S. Football League.
"I personally am opposed to drafting undergraduates, but sure, it will come up," Rozelle said.
Under NFL rules, college players are ineligible for the draft until they have either graduated or used up all four years of eligibility for college competition, or until five years after they entered college.
Since Walker had used three years of his college eligibility before signing with the USFL team, he would not be eligible for the 1984 draft unless he graduates next year. Given the time demands of USFL competition, it would be difficult for Walker to graduate with his class, although technically possible by attending classes next summer, fall and winter.
In any event, once Walker does become eligible for NFL competition, it's likely he will be drafted, even if he is under contract to a USFL club.
Asked what would happen if an NFL club went ahead and drafted Walker before 1985 despite league rules, Rozelle said, "There would be litigation. It would be the Al Davis thing again." He was referring to the managing partner of the Los Angeles Raiders, who took the NFL to court and won when the NFL tried to use league rules to stop the Raiders from moving from Oakland to Los Angeles.
"I would think that somebody would draft him (Walker, in 1985), and maybe fairly high," said General Manager Bobby Beathard of the Washington Redskins. "It would depend on what is going on in that league at the time."
Said Gil Brandt, vice president for personnel development of the Dallas Cowboys, "I'm sure somebody would pick him (in the future)." Brandt said other players who have signed with the USFL will probably be drafted by NFL clubs who want to establish rights to them. He said there is precedent for such action in NFL drafts of players who signed with the Canadian Football League and the former American Football League.
Once drafted by an NFL club, Walker would be free to sign with that team any time after he had discharged his contractual obligations with the USFL. According to the NFL, any club drafting him would retain exclusive NFL rights to him for four years, even if he played in another league for the entire period.
If he had not signed with the NFL club that drafted him after four years, he would be free to sign with any other NFL team. The club that drafted him would have the right to match the offer and keep him, according to an NFL spokesman.
Richard Berthelsen, counsel to the NFL Players Association, disputed that clause's legality. "They are trying to enforce what is undoubtedly an illegal provision against him by not drafting him," he said. "They are restraining the player's ability to market his services legally."