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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Making a reinstatement

Will NCAA set precedent with Mike Williams case?

Posted: Tuesday June 8, 2004 5:55PM; Updated: Tuesday June 8, 2004 5:55PM
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  Mike Williams
Mike Williams caught 95 passes for 1,314 yards and 16 TDs in his sophomore season at USC.
Robert Beck/SI

Let's see if we have this right. Mike Williams left school shortly after the spring semester began at USC and hasn't returned. In the interim, he signed a contract with a sports agent, agreed to a three-year deal with Nike and pocketed money from trading card deals.

Yet last week Williams told a Los Angeles radio station he will apply to the NCAA for reinstatement and wants to return to USC this season.

And USC folks, with head football coach Pete Carroll leading the cheers, believe the NCAA should restore the All-American wide receiver's college eligibility?

It's a kinder, gentler NCAA under the watch of president Myles Brand, but if the collegiate rulemakers set a precedent with Williams, it could turn into a jailbreak. Every kid ever slapped for accepting an illegal hamburger will line up outside the NCAA's Indianapolis headquarters and demand equal treatment. Brand's latest push for academic integrity would be lampooned as another silly farce.

Two former NCAA officials, both of whom cut their teeth on eligibility issues, told SI.com that the odds of Williams being cleared to suit up for the Trojans again aren't quite as high as Carroll portrays them. Making restitution for the money Williams accepted isn't the main hurdle. Having signed with an agent might be tougher to explain away. But the academic issue -- in addition to petitioning for reinstatement of his amateur status, Williams must also apply for a waiver of satisfactory academic progress, essentially explaining why he was not enrolled in school for the past semester -- looms as the deal-breaker.

"There's a lot of baggage around signing with agents,'' a former senior NCAA official said. "But he dropped out of school, too? That is going to be tough to overcome.''

USC officials recognize that Williams' academic situation is hard to explain away, but their appeal will cite other athletes who have been permitted academic lapses, such as Olympic athletes or others who have left campus for family emergencies. Officials contend Williams was misled into believing he was eligible for the draft after a U.S. district judge ruled struck down the NFL's age restrictions in the Maurice Clarett case, a ruling which subsequently was overturned by the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City on May 24. NFL rules bar players until they are three years out of high school, and Clarett and Williams each have been out of high school for just two years. 

"At the time he made his decision he was acting under the law of the land,'' said USC spokesman Tim Tessalone. "In this new era of the NCAA looking out for the good of the student-athlete we hope they'll allow him to return to school.''

The logical response is that Williams jumped the gun by hiring an agent and bolting school, especially since the ruling was subject to appeal. Or to wonder why, if getting back to USC is a priority, he hasn't found a summer school to enroll in.

Williams' agent, Mike Azzarelli, however, contends it was the NFL who sought out the player, calling the USC wideout after the initial ruling to advise him of his eligibility and gauge his pro intentions. Azzarelli said a rejection of Williams' application for NCAA reinstatement could strengthen a possible lawsuit against the league.

"By virtue of what the NFL told him and got him to do, he's violated every major [NCAA] rule there is,'' Azzarelli says. "So some people are talking about, 'Gee, if they forgive all of those sins you can tee it back up.' You're academically ineligible, you've been out of school, you've signed with an agent, money -- everything. Well, there are probably an awful lot of folks who got ruled ineligible for things a lot smaller and never got reinstated.

"So if he does get reinstated it will be because of NFL pressure forcing the NCAA to reinstate him.''

Azzarelli takes issue with the NCAA for filing a legal brief in support of the NFL's appeal of the Clarett ruling, backing its rule that players need be three years out of high school to be draft eligible.

"Why is the NCAA agreeing with the NFL on a three-year rule?'' Azzarelli asked. "[The NCAA represents] four-year institutions. They're just sitting here saying, 'Give us the kids as long as we can have them.' They're not talking about graduation rates. It is the biggest contradiction in sports.''

MAILBAG

With Williams focusing on a return to school, Azzarelli isn't sure where or if he fits into his client's plans. If USC expects its appeal for reinstatement to be considered, Williams obviously has to disassociate from his agent -- but Azzarelli says he is still drafting a mutual termination letter and hasn't signed or submitted any paperwork. Williams claimed last week that he has broken ties with Azzarelli.

Williams continues to lay low around the Tampa area, working out at a local YMCA and running daily. He hasn't wandered far from home -- aside from the time Azzarelli sent him down to the Bahamas for a few days to avoid the media glare during NFL Draft in late April.

What Williams' reinstatement bid reads like now is another step in a potentially contentious legal fight. Should the NCAA cut the kid a break, Williams will quietly return to the USC campus. If not, Azzarelli says he is prepared to petition the NFL for a spot in a supplemental draft and sue if the league refuses the request.

Because the NFL successfully argued that Clarett and other underclassmen wouldn't be harmed if left out of the draft -- claiming they had the option of reapplying to college -- it would strengthen Williams' legal position if the NCAA rules against his reinstatement. Then again, Azzarelli doesn't know what to expect in light of what he deems as a cozy NFL-NCAA relationship.

"The NCAA might say he can return [to USC] provided x amount of qualifications are met,'' he said. "And maybe those qualifications will be too stringent on him, but give the NFL what they need. That is a defense of saying, 'Here, well, they let you back in. Just because you couldn't do this or do that, that is your problem.'

"And in the event the NCAA just rejects [Williams' bid], we will ask the NFL at that point to conduct a supplemental draft and let Mike in under a special exemption. And if they say no, we'll sue them and see if we can get a judge to tell them to do that. If that doesn't happen and the time factor gets to where it's too late, then he'll work out and go to school locally and wait for the draft next year.''

But expect some fireworks before then, especially if the NCAA cuts a deal.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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