U.S. Football League officials said yesterday they will meet next week with members of the NCAA Professional Sports Liaison Committee and representatives of the College Football Association to discuss guidelines for signing and drafting of players with remaining college eligibility.
USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons reiterated that the signing of Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker was a special exception and that the league does not plan indiscriminately to sign undergraduates. Simmons hinted and other league sources suggested that the exception was made for Walker to give the USFL instant credibility, significantly increase its visibility and prevent Walker from going to the NFL a year later.
"We have not said, 'Here we are wide open, Marcus Dupree. Stand in line. We're going to sign you.' Absolutely not," Simmons said.
Carl Peterson, general manager of the Philadelphia Stars and chairman of the USFL's college relations committee, said he also planned to quell the fears of mass undergraduate signings by the USFL at the two meetings. The NCAA committee meets regularly with representatives of the NFL and USFL, according to Peterson.
"I've been dodging some bullets here," said Peterson, who has been taking most of the phone calls from college coaches and athletic directors angry at Walker's signing. Some schools, including the University of Maryland, said Wednesday they would not allow USFL personnel on their campus. Additional schools telling the USFL that yesterday included Louisiana State, Missisippi State and Kentucky.
"I'm mad and upset," said Charles McLendon, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and a member of the pro liaison committee, earlier in the day. Later he issued a statement asking coaches to reserve their decision on how to react to the signing until after next week's meeting.
"I certainly don't think or anticipate there will be too many (undergraduates signed by the USFL)," Peterson said. "Obviously we're going to have to address our policy of not drafting or signing college players who have eligibility remaining. Obviously, Herschel Walker is an exception, at least in the eyes of owners of teams in the U.S. Football League."
Walker was declared ineligible for his senior year at Georgia and signed a three-year contract reported to be worth about $5 million with the New Jersey Generals Wednesday, becoming the highest-paid player in football history. Simmons said the league approved Walker's contract because the pro eligibility rule, which the USFL copied from the NFL, was indefensible in court, according to three separate legal opinions. The rule keeps the NFL from signing players who have college eligibility remaining.
"By not taking the challenge, and making a special exception, we set aside the possibility of losing it and having a decision on the books against us," Simmons said.
Simmons said the opinions in the three briefs, two by outside legal firms, and the third from Jack Manton, Walker's lawyer, were based on a right-to-work situation in an antitrust case. On Wednesday, after Walker was declared ineligible by Georgia because he and his lawyer negotiated a contract, Manton predicted that Walker would have won a challenge of the pro eligibility rule, if he had been forced to do so.
A high official of one USFL team, asking for anonymity, said: "There's nobody clean in this thing. There really isn't. The owners came to an agreement that we'd better make an exception in this case, especially with the three legal opinions our position was indefensible, and approve the contract, or else he'd go in the other league next year."
On Wednesday, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle said the NFL had turned down overtures from Manton as late as that morning. He also said the league was prepared to go to court over the pro eligibility rule. Yesterday he said the owners would discuss the rule at a league meeting next month in California.
Jay Moser, the NFL's counsel, said: "I wouldn't, and I'm sure the commissioner wouldn't, predict to you that we would win. But we're not going to abandon a rule that has worked so well . . . We will not change voluntarily.
"We have been encouraged for many, many years by Congress and the colleges to maintain the rule as it is, and we believe it has served the players, the colleges and professional football well. What Chet Simmons' opinion is on a lawsuit will not affect our policy."
Under that policy, Walker likely will not be eligible for the NFL draft until 1985, because he still has a year of unused college eligibility and probably will not graduate with his class on time in 1984.
Under that same rule, Simmons said, the USFL has invalidated more than 200 contracts. Most of these apparently involve players who had dropped out of school.
The USFL apparently will not be tested at this time by Dupree, who last season set an NCAA freshman rushing record at the University of Oklahoma. Two Oklahoma newspapers quoted him as saying he plans to remain in school.
"The difference between Herschel and me is, Herschel has won a national championship, Herschel has won a Heisman Trophy," Dupree told The Oklahoman. "I still want to do all that. I have not heard from the USFL and I don't expect to."
One of the promising area prospects with college eligibility remaining is Boomer Esiason, Maryland's junior quarterback.
Asked whether the USFL would approve his contract, if Esiason were interested, Simmons said, "In that instance, we're not going to approve the contract."
Contacted afterward, Esiason said: "I don't think anybody should be an exception, not that I'm going to the USFL. It's ludicrous; if they accept one, they have to accept all . . . It's the same with the NFL. Not allowing underclassmen to go pro is ridiculous. Anybody who is physically and mentally ready should be able to."
The immediate impact of Walker's signing was clear in at least three areas--ticket sales, visibility and television advertising rates.
In Philadelphia, where the Stars play their first home game March 13 against the Generals, the team sold 3,000 single-game tickets yesterday morning for the opener, according to Leo Carlin, Stars business manager. Peterson said that 500 to 1,000 season-ticket reservations had been made since Walker's signing.
The USFL has a $24 million, two-year contract with ABC, and 30-second commercials have been selling for about $30,000, according to Simmons, who has run both NBC Sports and ESPN. Simmons said that remaining commercials could be sold for 50 percent more.
At CBS, Kevin O'Malley, executive producer for college sports, said: "When you have guys who develop as a freshman as he does, you look forward to having him for three more years."
O'Malley said that the largest impact may be on the university itself, in revenues from television appearances. If the current contracts with CBS and NBC are allowed to stand in the present antitrust suit filed by the universities of Georgia and Oklahoma over television rights, Georgia will have three appearances on the networks this season, once on CBS and twice on ABC.
But the Bulldogs are not as likely to get prime-time games and as attractive national telecasts without Walker. Ironically, if Georgia wins the appeal of its victory in a federal court, it could cost the school more because there will be no restrictions on the number of Georgia games on TV.
Ray Jauch of the USFL Washington Federals hasn't made up his mind about Walker's signing. "I have mixed feelings . . . It's fine to spend a lot of money on one or two players like Herschel or Craig James (SMU running back signed by the Federals) . . . but in order to have a good football team, a really good one, you need a team. I think the owners are beginning to realize now that if you get a running back like those two, you need blocking. It's almost a matter of protecting your investment."
In a way, that's what the league hopes it is doing in signing Walker. Simmons is hoping that Walker's signing will have a strong effect on "other players sitting on the fence."
He listed those players as wide receiver Anthony Carter of Michigan, running back Eric Dickerson of SMU and quarterback Dan Marino of Pitt. The USFL already has signed six potential NFL first-round draft choices, including James.
James, who combined with Dickerson to form SMU's Pony Express backfield, said he recently had talked to Dickerson, who was drafted on the first round by Arizona: "Eric is going to see what happens, but if the NFL can't match the money here, he's going to go with the money."