SI Vault
Paul Zimmerman
March 07, 1983
By signing Heisman Trophy Winner Herschel Walker to an out-of-this-world contract, the U.S. Football League put a lot more kick into its debut this week
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March 07, 1983

A New Round Of Star Wars?

By signing Heisman Trophy Winner Herschel Walker to an out-of-this-world contract, the U.S. Football League put a lot more kick into its debut this week

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A two-class system in pro sports, especially in football, where hogs must clear the way so that racehorses may gallop, has always been a tricky concept. Now we have it in the extreme—Herschel Walker and his multimillion-dollar package and a bunch of defensive backs with tape on their arms—and that's a major dilemma facing the new league.

The USFL is 18th-century France before the revolution. There are the Bourbons and the masses, and not much in between. And maybe there's a guillotine at the end. Maybe when all those $20,000-and $30,000-a-year guards and tackles and cornerbacks who have been sweating through their two-a-day workouts on $5-a-day expense money realize that they've been had, that the league's early pronouncements about how it was building from the ground up and avoiding the high-priced-star route was so much nonsense, there will be a great uprising.

The big packages for Walker and the likes of rookies Tim Spencer, Trumaine Johnson, Craig James, Kelvin Bryant, Reggie Collier and Anthony Carter have shown low-paid players that the money was there all along, enough for a few guys to get salaries bigger than anything the NFL, with its $2 billion television contract, was likely to have come up with. Don't forget that most of those USFL contracts are guaranteed, too, another concept the NFL has drifted away from.

There isn't much that the players who make up the bulk of the USFL's work force can do now except gnash their teeth and cast envious eyes. They're already locked into contracts, pinned down to minuscule numbers by the league's original prospectus—regional appeal through territorial player rights, boundless enthusiasm generated by under-priced field hands eager to prove that you don't need a big paycheck to knock someone on his behind, and all the rest of the p.r. baloney.

But next year, when those one-year contracts expire, that's when the fun will start. Or as Dwight Sullivan, Walker's blocking back on the Generals, says, "Right now I'm a $30,000 player. Next year I'll be worth $60,000."

"That's in the future; the point is that so far they've done everything right," says a former WFL official who went down with the ship in '75, when the league collapsed before finishing its second season. "Just look at what they have that we didn't have.

"They've got the big cities and the big stadiums. We had places like Shreveport. They've got big-name college stars, and they've got the biggest one right where they want him—in New York. They've got a two-year national TV contract, which gives them instant exposure. They've got some big-name coaches. Balance that off against the most pressing question: How many people will watch a football game in the spring?"

Hold on a minute. How about the credibility factor—the lies, the double-talk, the bylaws the USFL guys break every 20 minutes, such as their rule against signing college underclassmen?

Many schools are already saying they'll shut their doors to USFL scouts, despite Commissioner Chet Simmons' constant drumbeat that the Walker signing was a "special case" and his reiteration that now the rule against signing underclassmen is back in effect. There will be no more testing or timing or measuring of prospects. No more vertical jumps for USFL tape measures.

How important is all this? "Damn important," says the New England Patriots' director of player development, Dick Steinberg. "This year a lot of USFL people were fresh from the NFL and they took their syndicate scouting books with them. Now you can bet that security is going to be a lot tighter in the NFL. Very few people are going to have access to our information."

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