SI Vault
Edited by Jerry Kirshenbaum
March 07, 1983
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March 07, 1983


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In the aftermath of the U.S. Football League's signing of Herschel Walker, the powers-that-be in pro and college football were falling all over themselves to reaffirm their fealty to the notion that the pro leagues shouldn't traffic in players with college eligibility. The USFL said that its violation of that tenet in signing Walker was an "exceptional case," the NFL expressed the hope that it wouldn't have to stoop to the USFL's level and raid the campuses, and college coaches were so distraught about the USFL's supposed treachery that some schools and conferences promptly declared the league's emissaries personae non gratae. Mississippi State Coach Emory Bellard went so far as to call Walker's defection to the USFL "the single worst thing that has happened to college football since its inception."

Curiously, nobody seemed able to agree on just why the spiriting away of still-eligible college players might be so bad. Two common explanations were that the practice would 1) interfere with the players' education or 2) undermine the stability and financial health of college football. The first fear was expressed by a number of college coaches as well as the Dallas Cowboys' Tom Landry, who protested the USFL's signing of Walker by saying, "We've got to have the players with their college educations so they can move into their careers [outside football]." The second was voiced by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. "Colleges are having financial problems," he said. "To many, football is the main source of revenue. This is most unfortunate."

With all due respect for Landry's avowed concern for academics, however, only 29% of NFL players have earned college degrees, and college coaches are being downright presumptuous in invoking educational considerations. These are the selfsame gentlemen who steer their players into jock curricula that don't lead to degrees, the better to encumber them with 30 or more hours a week of practice, weight training, football-related travel, chalk talks and film sessions. If their players didn't have to devote so much time to the pigskin, of course, more of them might wind up with sheepskins.

The contention that the luring away of still-eligible collegians would cause financial hardship or otherwise disrupt the college game is also unconvincing. The loss of some of these players might slightly diminish the overall quality of college play and in some cases give schools less time to cultivate and exploit the name value of their biggest stars, but it wouldn't affect the competitiveness and esprit that are most responsible for college football's appeal. In the dozen years since Spencer Haywood went to court to force the NBA to drop a similar ban against signing players with eligibility remaining, college basketball has enjoyed unprecedented popularity.

But the college football establishment believes its sport merits special treatment, and that's good enough for the pro leagues, which use the colleges as a farm system and, notwithstanding the USFL's signing of Walker, don't want to offend the college coaches if they can help it. The resulting arrangement, rigged as it is to keep players from entering the job market before exhausting their eligibility, is collusive and quite likely illegal. It should further be noted that while thus holding their football players to four-year commitments, the colleges themselves are careful to make only one-year commitments; NCAA rules specify that athletes receive one-year scholarships renewable on a yearly basis—at the discretion of the colleges.

This exploitative situation is dramatized by the case of 27-year-old Willie Young, an Army veteran and father of five who was a standout defensive end as a freshman at Illinois in 1981 but quit school last summer and joined the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. Young had first signed with the USFL's Chicago Blitz, but then backed out of the deal. The league has since said that it would have disallowed his contract anyway because of its hands-off-underclassmen policy, which is patterned after the NFL's long-standing rule. If Young decides at some future juncture that he'd rather play pro football in the U.S. than in Canada, he may have to be patient. As things now stand, because he dropped out of college, the NFL and USFL wouldn't draft him until a year after his class graduates, at which time he'll be 30.


At Fenwick High in Oak Park, Ill. the four Barron brothers were all varsity swimmers, but because the eldest, Jimmy, graduated the year before the youngest, Tom, arrived as a freshman, they weren't all on the team at the same time. But that changed at Iowa State, where first Jimmy enrolled, followed by Mike, Timmy (after transferring from Illinois) and Tom. Because Jimmy was red-shirted for one year, all four boys wound up as Cyclone teammates this season, and Coach Bob Groseth got the idea of entering them as a 400-yard medley relay team in a dual meet against Northwestern in Evanston, a short drive from the Barron family's suburban Chicago home.

To make the brotherly relay a reality, Groseth had to switch Jimmy, the most gifted of the Barrons and normally a breaststroker—he placed 12th in the 200-yard breaststroke in the 1980 NCAAs—to another stroke. Groseth decided that the 22-year-old senior would lead off in backstroke, followed by Tom, 18, a freshman, in breaststroke; Tim, 19, a sophomore, in butterfly; and Mike, 21, a senior, in freestyle. When the meet began, most of the 100 fans on hand seemed to be friends or relatives of the Barrons. Everybody cracked up when the P.A. announcer introduced the Iowa State medley relay entry by declaring "In Lane Three, Jim Barron, Tom Barron, Tim Barron and Mike Barron." But what the brothers called the Big Barron Relay quickly turned into the Big Barron Botch-up. Iowa State's unique foursome built a nice lead, and Mike hit the touch pad well ahead of the Northwestern anchorman, but the officials, ruling that Mike had left the block too soon in starting his leg, disqualified the Cyclones, giving the Wildcats the victory in 3:53.74.

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