After five days of meetings, National Football League owners today made their first significant concession to competition from the United States Football League by deciding to condense this year's college draft into a one-day event.
Otherwise, the league declined to make changes. Team representatives postponed votes on proposals to move the draft from April to February and to keep roster sizes at 49 players instead of reducing them to 45. Both proposals, which were strongly backed by the Washington Redskins, were made in response to the early success of the USFL.
The league also reaffirmed its determination not to draft college undergraduates unless faced with court or legislative rulings forcing a change.
Commissioner Pete Rozelle readily admitted the league attempted all week to take a low-key approach to the USFL and not make hasty decisions, something he said the NFL did when threatened by the World Football League.
"It's still too early," Rozelle kept saying when asked to evaluate the USFL. "We have to get our house in order and strive to be a stronger league. That's our first priority now."
Rozelle maintained that some clubs in years past had pushed to change the draft from two days to one. That happened today, when it was decided that the 12-round draft will start at 8 a.m. on April 26 and continue until it finished, no matter how long it takes.
Past drafts usually took about 17 hours, which means that the draft this year could end in the early morning of April 27. It also means that the draft will begin at 5 a.m. on the West Coast.
"The West Coast teams had some concern," Rozelle said, "but they agreed to go along with the change." Many fans who attend draft day gatherings probably won't be too pleased by the time change, either.
He also said that teams thought they would have a stronger chance to sign late-round selections by having the draft on one day. That way, USFL teams couldn't talk overnight to players not chosen on the early rounds before the draft resumed.
Rozelle predicted that at the next league meeting, in Tampa, Fla., May 26-27, teams likely will vote to move the draft to February. "If not then, then possibly in the fall, at our next meeting," he said. "But that is my own feeling." The USFL holds its draft in January.
But there was no prediction about roster size. Teams favoring a 49-man roster want to protect players from the USFL. Teams opposing the proposal cite financial (the extra money to pay four players) and competitive reasons (the weaker teams should have a chance at the four players cut by the stronger teams).
"We let go four extra players and they wind up in the USFL," Washington General Manager Bobby Beathard said. "That doesn't make any sense to me. Opponents argue that we are a strong team, so we don't want to give the other teams more players that they can sign. But that's not how I see it at all. We can't ignore that another league exists. They are going to competitively seek anyone we cut."
The proposal had a majority vote but fell short of the 21 needed for passage, so sponsors withdrew it until May.
With the reaffirmation of its college eligibility rule, the league also reaffirmed that Herschel Walker would not be included in this year's draft pool. Walker signed with the USFL despite having a year of college eligibility remaining.
In another matter, Marv Demoff, who is the agent for quarterback John Elway of Stanford, indicated Elway could become the NFL's first $1 million-a-year player.
Demoff said that Elway, a talented baseball player who is being sought by the New York Yankees, is leaning "51 percent to 49 percent" toward a football career. Demoff said he expected Elway to make a decision before the April draft "and then I believe John will stay with that decision. He is a man of his word." Demoff said 16 to 18 NFL teams already have contacted him about Elway. Baltimore has the first selection in the draft and is leaning toward taking Elway, considered the finest quarterback to come into the draft in years.
"If Herschel Walker and John were coming out in the same draft, more teams would be interested in John," said Demoff, who based the figure of $1 million per year for Elway on that premise. Walker signed a USFL contract that reportedly pays him $600,000 his first season.