The U.S. Football League's signing of Georgia star running back Herschel Walker will open a "Pandora's box" that will lead to more undergraduates being lured from college, a prominent sports attorney said yesterday.
Bob Woolf, a Boston lawyer who has represented professional athletes for 20 years, said, "I don't believe it will be an isolated case. I think there will be more signings of undergraduates. Despite what the NFL (National Football League) is saying, they will have to be competitive and sign undergraduates. They have opened up a Pandora's box."
Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said the signing of Walker is likely to trigger a dramatic increase in players' salaries throughout that league.
But as Walker prepared to join the USFL's New Jersey Generals today at their training camp in Orlando, Fla., other opinions were divided on the ramifications his signing will have for college and professional football.
Walker lost his senior year of college eligibility Wednesday when he signed the most lucrative contract ever offered in professional football--$5 million for three years.
Lou Holtz, football coach at the University of Arkansas, said the signing "will definitely have a major impact on intercollegiate athletics. A precedent has been set."
George Welsh, football coach at the University of Virginia, said the impact on the college game will be minimal. "I think we can survive," he said.
And Marvin Demoff, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents professional athletes, predicted the signing of Walker ultimately will lead to the demise of the NFL rule against signing players until their college elibility has expired or until five years after they entered college.
In Athens, Ga., yesterday Walker, the Heisman Trophy winner who gained 5,259 yards in three years at the university, packed his bags and prepared to head south to begin his professional career. "I'll still come back and get my degree," The Associated Press quoted him as saying.
"I'll be back in the summer if the (USFL) season is over. If not, I'll be back in the fall. My plans haven't changed, just redirected . . ."
Reaction to the USFL's intrusion into the ranks of college players continued strong in some areas. Coaches in the Pacific 10 Conference voted Thursday night not to permit USFL scouts on their campuses until they received adequate guarantees that there will be no repetition of the Walker case. Texas A&M, Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt also said they would bar the USFL.
A USFL spokesman said last night league officials will meet Thursday with the NCAA Professional Sports Liason Committee. "I hope we can take a realistic approach and review the current legal status of a young man's right to seek employment and to balance that status with the desires of the colleges," said USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons.
Garvey, predicting Walker's high salary will raise those of other professional football players, noted that only three previous times in the history of the NFL was there competition from a rival league: the All America Football Conference from 1946-49, the American Football League from 1960-66 and the World Football League in 1974.
Players' salaries doubled or tripled in each of those periods, Garvey said. "If history is a teacher, one would expect the average salary to go up dramatically in the next three years. It will help all the free agents who are negotiating right now. The NFL does not want to lose a whole string of quality veteran players to the new league."
Richard Bennett, a Washington lawyer who represents several NFL players, said, "I think it will affect, in a significant way, the salaries that are paid to the superstars in the National Football League."
"If I were a (San Diego quarterback) Dan Fouts, I would think that I would have a worth very close to what they are paying Herschel Walker." In Boston, Woolf, who represents former Michigan receiver Anthony Carter in negotiations with the Michigan Panthers of the USFL, said he believes Carter is being offered three times what he would command in a normal NFL draft. Carter has been offered a reported $1.3 million for four years.
Of the Walker signing, Woolf said, "I don't think anybody likes the way it was handled, the subterfuge, the lack of integrity." Woolf, who heads the American Bar Association's committee on sports and entertainment law, also predicted there will be unwholesome side effects to the signing of undergraduates.
"It's been bad enough as it is with unscrupulous agents," he said. "This will bring on a whole new breed of worse ones who will try to entice undergraduates to leave for the professional leagues. Even down to the high school level. There will be major, major problems."
Demoff said it was only a matter of time before the prohibition against signing undergraduates for pro football would come under attack.
"It was inevitable that one league would either sign a player or the rule would be challenged by a player," he said. "If the rule is left intact, a challenge will come to it. I would hope that reasonable rules could be worked out between colleges and professional teams that they both can live with. They need to sit down and come up with a set of rules that will protect a kid but not restrain him."
Demoff also noted there was no controversy when basketball stars such as Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas left college early to turn professional. "If the only athletes that are prevented from earning a living are football players, then there is a basic sense of unfairness.
"One of the things people need to look at is the surprisingly low numbers of players (29 percent, says the NFLPA) in the NFL who actually earn their degrees. That rule has not enabled students to graduate and get their degrees. The rule was made to restrain trade, not help people get degrees. Whatever their motives are, it isn't working as far as education is concerned."
NCAA President John Toner and Welsh both said that Walker, because he is such an uncommonly gifted player, is a special case.
"You're only talking about three or four individuals a year," said Welsh. "I don't think it's in the best interests of the USFL to keep signing undergraduates, but even if they do, I think college football will survive. As I see it right now, I don't think it will be a big factor in college football."
In Arkansas, Holtz had a decidedly different interpretation. "It just opens up a whole new world. The NFL didn't become the most successful sport in the country by chance . . . I'm sure this will make them take a new look at their methods of acquiring players.
"It's like Roger Bannister when he broke the four-minute mile. He did it and then everybody else did it."