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Did Williams Receive Bum Rap From NFL?

April 22, 1999|J.A.ADANDE

Ricky Williams--dreadlocks, Master P and all--is the best thing to happen to the NFL. And the league doesn't even know it.

While NFL front offices were stuck in the mud, listening to Lawrence Welk on vinyl records, they let the future of the sport slip down to the No. 5 spot in the draft.

The NFL is bending backward as much as its stiff old bones will allow to get a franchise in Los Angeles because it doesn't want a generation of kids in the nation's No. 2 market growing up without a local football team's jersey to buy. Meanwhile, the NFL is in danger of losing a generation all across the country if it doesn't embrace the hip-hop culture.

If the league's owners and general managers would put down their Wonderlic test results long enough to take a look at the Billboard charts or watch the Grammy awards, they would notice what group is taking over the recording industry: rappers. That's the language the kids are speaking, and the NFL needs to get fluent.

So if the kids won't go to you--and right now they're more likely to watch "WCW Monday Nitro" than "Monday Night Football"--you've got to go to them.

Ricky Williams is the perfect vehicle. He has the dreadlocks, the tattoos and the piercings, but no police record. He's a guy who looks like the kids and can sincerely tell them to stay in school, because he went back for his senior year at Texas when he could have made himself eligible for the draft last year.

He also signed with No Limit Sports, the athlete representation and marketing group formed by rapper-turned-entrepreneur Percy Miller, alias Master P.

Master P has assembled a team of lawyers and accountants with top-notch credentials to handle all the work. He can give Williams and other potential clients all the services they need, plus give him an entree into the hip-hop world, with built-in marketing avenues.

Yet the NFL saw this as a bad thing, envisioning posses of weed-smoking gangstas stepping to the bargaining table.

Just when it seemed the NFL was reaching an age of enlightenment, with three black quarterbacks going in the first round and race hardly entering the discussion, stuff like this Master P junk pops up.

It came couched in all kinds of other excuses.

They said Williams picked up too much weight during the banquet circuit.

They said he had small hands. Finally, there were questions about his "signability." You can believe it was about "signability," but Tim Couch gave the new Cleveland Browns enough problems that right up until the eve of the draft they were still flirting with Akili Smith just to gain some leverage. "Signability" didn't seem to cost Couch the No. 1 overall pick.

It wouldn't be an issue now unless someone wanted to make it an issue to cover his other motives.

I'll try to be generous here. If you saw the level of quarterback play in the NFL last season, you can see why Cleveland, Philadelphia and Cincinnati would want to take solid quarterbacks such as Couch, Donovan McNabb and Smith with the first three picks. I'll even go so far as to guess Miami's Edgerrin James' running style and pass-catching ability might make him a better choice for the Indianapolis Colts than Williams--even though you never heard any talk about James turning pro until he ran all over UCLA's weak defense and even Miami writers think Williams is better.

Is New Orleans Saint Coach Mike Ditka that much smarter than the rest of the league that he'd be willing to trade the rest of his draft picks, plus two picks next year, to Washington for the right to take Williams at No. 5?

What was going on on draft day?

"I don't know," said Williams, who was in Los Angeles to receive the Black Sports Agents Assn. college player-of-the-year award Tuesday. "I really would like to know, but I don't know what happened. I don't see how I was not the first running back taken in the draft.

"I think I was at least rated up there. I at least had a chance to go as the top player. It all depends on what a team needs. If they thought a quarterback was the one that put them over the top, then good for them."

But if teams had other reasons for making their selections, then shame on them. If teams can pass on talents such as Randy Moss and Warren Sapp because of character issues, then a guy like Williams ought to move up because of character and marketing issues--not to mention the fact he rushed for an NCAA Division I-record 6,279 yards at Texas.

We'll never know for sure how much of an influence Williams' affiliation with Master P had on his draft selection, if it had any influence at all. The fact that it has even been discussed shows how clueless the league is.

"I kind of feel like the sacrificial lamb this year," Williams said. "Hopefully I can open up a lot of doors for future players and agents."

Of course, he won't open a thing if he can't run the football. He'll look bad, Master P will look bad and Ditka will look insane.

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