The NCAA yesterday denied the University of Southern California's request to restore the college football eligibility of all-American wide receiver Mike Williams.
The verdict left Williams in football limbo, unable to play again for the school that he helped to a share of the national title last season and ineligible to enter the NFL because of rulings by a federal appeals court in New York that kept him out of the league's draft in April.
"There were two obstacles facing Mike for eligibility; one related to academics and one related to amateurism, and sports agents in particular," the NCAA said in a statement released last night. "Either one was sufficient to prohibit participation in competition. In this case, neither obstacle could be cleared."
USC officials said they would not appeal the NCAA's decision, which came shortly before the Trojans traveled here for their season-opening game tomorrow against Virginia Tech at FedEx Field, but Coach Pete Carroll and other school officials strongly denounced it.
"We knew all along from the tone that we got from the highest level that he would be denied," Carroll said, according to a written statement released by the school. "Their tenor was that he didn't deserve this opportunity. I could tell from the very beginning how hard they were going to make this, but to take it all the way to one hour before we leave? I couldn't be more disappointed. It's very cold and insensitive for them to deny him this opportunity."
Williams, 20, is eligible for next year's NFL draft and will have to wait until then to play professionally. A person familiar with Williams's planning said that it is almost certain that the NFL season begins too soon to make a final effort to get him into the league this year.
Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said by telephone last night from California: "The courts said he was eligible, then the courts said he was ineligible. The one that had a chance to make all of this right was the NCAA, and they didn't do it. But the courts were the ones that put Mike Williams in this situation, not the NFL. There's no way the NFL would change their position at this point.
"I feel bad for him. I've said that from the beginning. But I'm listening to the radio and they're talking about who's to blame, the NCAA or the NFL. And I'm thinking, 'There's another party in all of this -- the courts.' "
Williams said, according to the school's statement: "I'm glad it's over. Now the team can move forward and I can move forward. I'm disappointed. I did everything asked of me. I don't know yet what I'm going to do. I'll just relax for the weekend and watch the game and root for my team."
The NCAA, in its statement, said it was "patently unfair" for USC to suggest "there was a preconceived notion of the outcome."
"Due to the uniqueness of the case and the complexity of issues, the follow up was required in order to provide Mike Williams with a fair and thoughtful analysis," the NCAA said.
Williams entered the NFL draft after a February ruling by U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin on former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett's lawsuit against the league temporarily opened the draft to college freshmen and sophomores and high school players. Scheindlin ruled that the NFL's draft-eligibility rule -- that a player must be at least three years removed from high school -- violated antitrust laws. The league set a new deadline for previously ineligible players to enter the draft, and Williams, who just had completed his sophomore season at USC, was the only prominent player to jump in. Most NFL teams projected him as a first-round selection.
But the league, maintaining that its rule was exempt from antitrust scrutiny because it resulted from collective bargaining with the NFL Players Association, was granted a stay of Scheindlin's ruling just before the draft by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. The stay kept Clarett and Williams out of the draft, and two U.S. Supreme Court justices rejected Clarett's application for emergency relief. The appeals court judges later reversed Scheindlin's ruling. Clarett is awaiting a response to his request to have the full appeals court hear the case. He also could appeal to the Supreme Court.
Williams filed but quickly withdrew a lawsuit against the league and severed his ties with his Tampa-based agent, Michael Azzarelli. He said he repaid Azzarelli all the money that the agent had given him, and USC filed its appeal to the NCAA. Williams attended summer school and participated in some of the team's preseason practices.
Azzarelli previously said that Williams was prepared to make a last-minute bid to enter the NFL this season via supplemental draft if his attempt to return to college football failed. But a source close to the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of ongoing legal issues, said last night that the NCAA had delayed the process for too long and such an attempt no longer makes sense. The NFL season opens on Sept. 9.
USC officials said that the NCAA denied Williams's application on two fronts -- that he hadn't made sufficient progress toward a degree and that he no longer was an amateur athlete.
"The NCAA told us that Mike knowingly took a risk by hiring an agent and that, despite the mitigating circumstances involving the Maurice Clarett case ruling, the breadth and depth of the violations exceeded the NCAA's amateurism principles," Todd Dickey, USC's vice president and general counsel, said in the school's statement.
"Of course, the NCAA knew all of this when we first began the reinstatement process, and yet they strung this out all summer. I fear that the NCAA may have put Mike and USC through this process to make the NCAA appear fair and thorough in their deliberations," Dickey said. "It appears that they may have decided long ago that Mike would not play college football again."
Said Carroll: "This isn't the Wizard of Oz making these decisions. These are people. There's a supposed tone of student friendliness now, but that's not the case here. I'm talking about the NCAA at [the] highest levels. Mike's okay. He could sense it, too. It's been difficult for him. He felt it was an uphill battle from the start. I feel sick for him. The team will be okay. We've prepared without him.''