Precedents exist for the argument that Walker should be allowed to turn pro whenever he wants. The NBA had a similar rule struck down in the landmark Spencer Haywood suit of 1971. The NBA now considers for selection anyone whose high school class has graduated and who petitions for inclusion within 45 days of the draft, thereby declaring himself a pro. Organized Baseball has an agreement with the NCAA that allows college players to apply for the draft after their 21st birthday, or after their junior year, or after they have been out of school for at least 120 days.
But even though the NFL wouldn't relish a courtroom fight over the eligibility rule, it nevertheless must take the position that any restraint of trade in Walker's case is justifiable in the interests of the majority. Restraint of trade is the central argument in Al Davis' case to move his Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles, and the league cannot afford a damaging precedent on that issue. In the opinion of many lawyers, the eligibility rule is a breathtakingly clear-cut example of restraint of trade. Still, the NFL could win a legal battle with Walker. The fact that the 1977 Collective Bargaining Agreement accepts the eligibility rule would seem to imply that normal restraint-of-trade arguments wouldn't apply if Walker were to challenge the NFL. And even though Walker isn't yet a member of the players' union. Professor Paul Weiler of the Harvard Law School, an expert on labor and sports law, says, "There's some authority in labor and antitrust law that certainly gives the union the right to bargain about the rights of potential employees."
As for the University of Georgia's mood if Walker were to take this step, after it has wrung its hands and cried into its pillow at night, its options are pretty much exhausted. The NCAA would be obliged to do nothing. In the first place, it's already on shaky grounds with some of its limitations on athletes, and it knows it. "Our consistent reaction," says Tom Hansen, assistant executive director of the NCAA, "is not to restrict the freedom of choice of any athlete to begin a career."
Furthermore, a simple inquiry to the NFL by Walker—even if he were accompanied by a lawyer and even if the lawyer were a lawyer-agent, like Walker's friend Jack Manton of Atlanta (Manton is married to a Wrightsville girl)—wouldn't violate NCAA rules. What's more, says Steve Morgan, an NCAA lawyer who interprets these rules for the enforcement department, even if the challenge went to litigation it wouldn't necessarily constitute an attempt by Walker to turn pro. To do that, he would have to officially request inclusion in the draft or approach an individual club.
The irony is inescapable. Conceivably, Walker could hurl this lightning bolt and send the NFL into a screaming frenzy—then blithely pick up his Georgia helmet and go back to practice, his college eligibility intact.
The greater fear that the NCAA and caring coaches like Dooley have is that a change in the NFL's eligibility rules would result in a wholesale defection to the pros of players who would be forsaking their education for a pie-in-the-sky shot at an NFL career. And that once the lid is off, says Hansen, "Unscrupulous agents would swarm over the game," trying to con young athletes into premature and potentially disastrous decisions. Such agents are already nettlesome to the NCAA, according to Hansen, and the problem would only be exacerbated by a looser standard.
But how valid, really, is that fear? If what has occurred in the NBA is a criterion, a wholesale defection isn't likely. Since 1976, only 43 basketball players who still retained college eligibility have filed for the pro draft; 20 made NBA teams, a surprisingly good percentage. Their number includes the likes of Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Mark Aguirre. After '76, when 17 filed and only five made NBA teams, a natural wariness grew on both the pros' part—clubs are more selective in the draft—and on the part of the athletes themselves. Meanwhile, college basketball attendance is up, revenues are up. television ratings are up.
In football, the selection process would probably be even more rigorous because college football players mature less rapidly than their basketball brothers. Nevertheless, a real talent like Walker would be impossible to pass up. Or to hide. Tension would surely arise between college football coaches, already famous for their paranoia, and pro scouts, and that would have to be dealt with. Such tension exists in basketball, where certain scouts have been made unwelcome at certain schools. For instance, until recently LSU refused even to help visiting scouts buy tickets to its games. But the greater danger would appear to be agents, because for them the stakes are incredibly high and big money only a percentage deal away. Manton, a "lawyer who does sports law" and who has among his NBA clients San Antonio's Mike Mitchell, Milwaukee's Sidney Moncrief and Atlanta's Eddie Johnson, says there's not much that can be done about bad agents except hope that the more scrupulous ones will rise to the top. He says he has told "all 50" of the undergraduate basketball players who have come to him with the idea of filing for the draft to "go back to school."
What, then, is he telling Walker?
Yes, says Manton, they "talk," but since an insurance deal he tried to arrange for Walker a year or so ago got struck down by the NCAA, he has been very careful what they talk about. "But if he were to ask me what to do," says Manton, "I would say, 'Know your options. Determine what will make you the happiest.' He has stated he would discuss his options with the NFL. I think he should talk to the commissioner and then determine if he wants to litigate."