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William Johnson
April 12, 1971
Two of basketball's best undergraduates turn pro, others may, and football is in trouble, too, following a court decision
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April 12, 1971

A Legal License To Steal The Stars

Two of basketball's best undergraduates turn pro, others may, and football is in trouble, too, following a court decision

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As of today, the battle between the NBA and the ABA does not quite lend itself to attitudes of decency, though a merger of the leagues seems imminent. As Chicago Attorney Arthur Morse, who has acted as an agent for many athletes, says: "The price war will end. But it is a terrible thing for now. It is a cancer created by the two leagues and terminated by the two leagues. They create the cancer by creating an insatiable jungle, an unrealistic market for basketball players. And while they are doing it they are meeting behind closed doors to merge and terminate the cancer. But the solution isn't merger, really. The answer is sensible, honest administration of your business. And that will never happen. You know why and I know why— because Greed, thy name is legion."

But what of the group that is most affected by the changing rules of the draft game—the undergraduate stars? The time was when they might well have said college mattered above all, that they owed a debt to the schools that had given them scholarships, that their education would be a lifelong treasure and treasury. But, like some college athletic administrators, their reactions now are more honest and pragmatic. The great majority of stars agree on one thing—it is up to the individual player, and each case is different. Their attitudes may come as a surprise to some of their coaches and to followers of their teams.

A few of the players, of course, have already made their decisions: college basketball's top scorer, Johnny Neumann, whose father is seriously ill, has gone to Memphis. "I hope the people of Ole Miss can understand my situation," he said. Indiana's brilliant sophomore, George McGinnis, after a month of what he describes as 24-hour-a-day pressure, said, "I remember shooting out in the dust, getting blisters, getting cut, getting tired. A man would be crazy not to take a million dollars or more." And he announced he will sign with the highest bidder. That was the position, too, of Julius Erving of Massachusetts, who seems headed for the ABA Virginia Squires while his coach can merely say, "I am very disappointed...but I have no ill feelings."

One articulate spokesman for the players is Tom Burleson, a 7'4" freshman center at North Carolina State. "It is more an individual situation rather than a hard-and-fast rule." he says. "Those happy with college shouldn't leave, but if a player is letting college get the best of him, he is more apt to sign. I think I owe it to the college to stay, but in the long run it's to the player's benefit rather than the college's. The athletic grant is not binding by law, but when you accept a grant-in-aid I think you do have a moral obligation to the coach."

Many disagree. Says Steve Mitchell, Kansas State's sophomore star: "I've got to keep in mind the possibility of a merger between the two leagues, because if that happens soon they won't be throwing all that big money around. When I first came to Kansas State I felt I was obligated to stay and play four years because they gave me a scholarship. What changed my mind was when Cotton Fitzsimmons, the coach who recruited me, quit suddenly to become head coach with the Phoenix Suns because it meant a big raise to him. I decided from then on I'd look out for myself first, too."

Henry Wilmore, a sophomore star for the Michigan basketball team, plans to stay on and get his degree, but when asked if he was doing this to fulfill an obligation to the school, he says, "I don't feel I owe it to Michigan, I owe it to myself." Paul Westphal, a second-team All-America junior guard for USC, puts it in plain dollar figures. "No one has offered me any $2 million," he says, "but you would sure have to think about that for a long time. You really might have to give up 26 college games for that. I want to coach some day and a degree is essential, but I don't think anyone could blame anyone for signing at some of the dollar figures we're hearing." And Westphal's dynamic teammate, junior Center Ron Riley, says, "It all depends on how much money they offer. You can always come back and get your degree." ("There appear to be rough times ahead," notes USC Coach Bob Boyd. "A coach would never be able to plan with certainty from year to year. We would never know where we stand.") Ron Thomas, a junior forward at Louisville, says, "Well, I know I wouldn't give up my last season. At least I don't think I would. Not unless it was a big offer." How big? "Oh, at least half a million." Says Illinois sophomore Nick Weatherspoon, "The only person you owe something to is yourself, because the university can't make a living for you. You have to do what you think is best—for you." And Allan Hornyak, Ohio State's superb sophomore guard, says: "You offer a certain amount of money and any kid will jump at it. It would take a lot of education to make a fella worth $2 million, for example, wouldn't it? I wouldn't hesitate if they came to me."

As things stand now, no sophomore or junior star—in basketball or football—can be protected from the men offering money. And the colleges are almost entirely without recourse. Brad Snyder, basketball coach at Northwestern, sums up with frustration: "The pros can't just come on these campuses and raid these kids. There's no sense being in the game if it's going to be like that. It's all a matter of dollars, with no regard for values. Athletics isn't supposed to be played for dollars. But I guess that's what it is nowadays."

The truth, of course, is that athletics at this level is indeed played for dollars—even at Northwestern. Lots of dollars. That is one of the issues that the famous coaches, and the schools striving for the Top 20 listings, tend to skirt, or used to. But Judge Ferguson may have evoked, accidentally, a fresher, stronger attitude within college sport itself. There is a hint that both schools and coaches are getting tired of their own dollar rat race—the million-dollar budgets, the year-round recruiting, etc., etc. They want to be honest with their finest players, to be able to say, "Turn pro," if that seems best. And they know that big-time college sport will survive, new rules or no. Many teams might lose a star, but, as UCLA's J.D. Morgan puts it: "We'll survive by numbers alone."

The odds are things won't come to that. Somewhere, once again, a college-pro sport accommodation is likely to be found. Meanwhile, one can ponder the ironies of the worst extreme, as voiced by Illinois Basketball Coach Harv Schmidt: "The true amateur may be reestablished."

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