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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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There is trepidation and confusion in college sport these days, for the old order no longer prevails. Not only does it not prevail, for the time being the old order has been declared to be against the law—potentially as illegal as smoking pot, kiting stocks or fixing prices. Suddenly basketball teams are collapsing: Mississippi's sophomore superstar is gone, Indiana's wonder soph has told the pros come take me, and so has Massachusetts' best player ever, a junior. Nor is college football safe. Indeed, coaches and athletic directors are frankly facing up this week to the possibility of a major change in college football and basketball programs.

The very structure of big-time college athletics is a frail thing. Its morality is uneasy, its accommodations many; it cloaks its worries and skirts its issues. And it thrives. But because of its fragile nature, it is ill-equipped to cope with a major dilemma, and now it faces one.

The reason for the consternation in college sport is a sharply-worded legal opinion issued late last month by Federal Court Judge Warren J. Ferguson of Los Angeles. In it he swept away one of the most cherished verities of U.S. athletics—the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not sign to a professional contract any football or basketball player who has not passed four years beyond his high school graduation. Judge Warren abolished the commandment during hearings on the celebrated antitrust suit of Spencer Haywood against the National Basketball Association, a suit built upon the sound ground that the NBA had acted to restrain young Haywood's pursuit of a livelihood with the Seattle Super-Sonics simply because two years before he had signed a professional basketball contract with Denver of the ABA while a mere sophomore at the University of Detroit.

The Haywood suit seemed important in professional basketball circles, bearing as it did upon the war between the rival NBA and ABA, but it paled into insignificance—and was promptly settled out of court—when Judge Ferguson suddenly brought the entire system, entente and rapport of the college-pro sport world into legal question. What the judge did was raise the issue of the legal rights of the one group that has been ignored by the gentlemanly agreements between the pro and college sports Establishments: the undergraduate players.

It is true that the so-called four-year rule has been in effect since the days of Red Grange and in general quite rigidly observed by even the most avaricious and ambitious sharks in the seas of professional football and basketball. There are two compelling reasons why the pro leagues have so consistently kept their hands off undergraduate athletes: 1) the policy allows the pros to stand on the side of the educational angels by giving a youngster full opportunity to finish his college education—though many never do—and 2) it automatically creates a vast, and free, farm system in which future professionals can be polished as performers and even premerchandised as celebrities for years before they move into the big leagues. The four-year rule has thus been more or less carved in granite in the bylaws of the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the American Basketball Association, too, though that carving may be more in soapstone than in rock (the ABA was by no means above softly employing the rule's "hardshipcase" exception, i.e., Haywood).

But now any player—freshman, sophomore or junior as well as a drafted senior—can be signed by the pros, for Judge Ferguson offered no equivocation in his ruling. He wrote: "The court orders that partial summary judgment in favor of plaintiff Haywood be granted, to the limited extent of ruling that the NBA's four-year college rule—as embodied in Sections 2.05 and 6.03 [of NBA bylaws]—is a violation of Section I of the Sherman Act." And to be certain this could not be misunderstood, he added: "Sections 2.05 and 6.03 of the bylaws of the National Basketball Association are declared to be illegal...."

So it was no longer a matter of personal choice, individual hardship, hard-nosed practicality or even warm-hearted morality whether or not the ABA's Memphis Pros went ahead and signed Mississippi's brilliant sophomore, Johnny Neumann, for a reported $2 million two weeks ago. It was a matter of law that Memphis had the right to do so and that Neumann had the right to sign. Any application of the four-year rule as a method of rejecting Neumann's contract would have been an attempt to enforce a "group boycott" against the boy—and that is illegal. Thus, when ABA Commissioner Jack Dolph attempted to block Neumann's contract he was acting outside the law, at least according to Judge Ferguson's interpretation. And when NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy told his league directors two weeks ago that "undergraduates will not be eligible for the 1971 draft," he, too, would seem to violate the Sherman Antitrust Act. And, yes, when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle said recently that he would not approve any contracts made between any of his teams and an undergraduate, he was speaking from a dubious legal base. Judge Ferguson's point is, of course, that the "group boycott" effect of the four-year rule works to arbitrarily block a young athlete from making a living as a professional "even though he does not desire to or may not be eligible to attend college, and even though he does not desire to and is ineligible to participate in collegiate athletics." The four-year rule, in effect, restrains an individual from free exercise of his full potential as an athlete.

The shock of it all has made a profound impression upon the American sports community. Pete Rozelle issued an uncharacteristically overblown declaration: "I can't believe a practice that is for the protection of the colleges could be legally ruled invalid. If it could be, of course, it would no doubt destroy college football and basketball." That is hardly the case. As one college conference commissioner said wryly: "We could always go back to using students as athletes." But there are many who share Rozelle's dark view of the future.

Gary Colson, the athletic director of Pepperdine College, says, "I can't understand how one man can sit in a chair and make this decision. The whole bubble will burst in college athletics if this prevails. This is another step toward destruction." Speaking a bit more calmly, Northwestern's Alex Agase, college football's 1970 Coach of the Year, says, "This could eliminate all superstars from college competition." Tommy Prothro, who left the UCLA football coaching job to take over the Los Angeles Rams, sounds most desperate of all. "It's a disaster for everyone," he says. "It's a disaster for the best players in college football. It's a disaster for the colleges. It's a disaster for pro football."

UCLA's John Wooden is almost as pessimistic. "I've feared this for years," he says. "And I've felt all along such a thing would hurt professional basketball by destroying its feeding ground. Anyway, it would be a mistake, to my mind, for the great majority of boys to sign. It would definitely hurt them."

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