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Williams' Court of Last Resort

USC receiver's college career, already buffeted by judicial system, now is in the NCAA's hands.

August 22, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

Mike Williams' football future once depended on the decisions of federal court judges and Supreme Court justices.

Now the star receiver from USC's national championship team waits for a handful of administrators at the NCAA's Indianapolis headquarters to decide whether he can return to college football despite turning professional last February, when it appeared courts would force the National Football League to accept younger players.

Williams' six-month odyssey from college football stardom to professional riches and the brink of the NFL -- and now perhaps back again -- is a complex tangle that includes debate over such issues as antitrust law, the nature of amateurism, the role of academics and the NCAA's evolution into a more forgiving institution.

Whether Williams ultimately will be allowed to play for USC this season -- or whether he'll be left stranded, a football player rejected by the only two leagues he wants to play in -- hinges on two separate NCAA decisions.

The NCAA told USC it will rule on the first issue, the reinstatement of Williams' amateur status, this week. An answer on his academic eligibility might be delayed, although if his reinstatement bid is denied or he is reinstated but suspended for a number of games, it becomes less urgent to have an answer before USC's season opener Saturday. Paperwork on Williams' summer grades was to be submitted to the NCAA Monday or Tuesday, USC Coach Pete Carroll said.

"I think they're going to make him eligible, but that's totally a guess," said Richard Lapchick, a longtime observer of the NCAA who is chair of the DeVos Sport Business Program at the University of Central Florida.

Lapchick cited the unique circumstances of the case and the NCAA's new era of flexibility under President Myles Brand, as well as USC's reputation in college sports and high graduation rate in football.

"USC is such an important player for the NCAA. That shouldn't be a factor, but I think it is," Lapchick said.

At USC, where one insider considers the chances of Williams' being reinstated as "50-50 at best," Carroll has tried to keep the issue from being a distraction.

Williams, after practicing sporadically at the beginning of training camp, went home to Florida to visit the surrogate family he has lived with since he was 16 before returning to USC in time for fall classes, which begin Monday.

Kathy McCurdy, the woman he considers his mother, called this a "difficult" and "very emotional" time for Williams in a phone interview, and said he was declining to talk to reporters until the NCAA issues a decision.

NCAA rules allow Williams to practice while the case is pending, but Carroll decided he should stop -- in part because the team must prepare for the likelihood it will start the season without him Saturday against Virginia Tech.

Until the NCAA decision is final, the Trojans are in limbo.

"We're not talking about it and everybody's [not] pensively waiting," Carroll said. "We're way into our football and the preparation too much.

"But it's still a lingering item that's out there, that you know it's going to come in here in the next couple days right as we're preparing for the ballgame. We've just got to see if we can do well by it."

Williams' saga began last February, during his sophomore year, after a federal judge ordered the NFL to end its ban on players who have not been out of high school for three years.

That ruling, the result of an antitrust suit brought by former Ohio State player Maurice Clarett, was stayed by an appellate court in April, allowing the NFL draft to proceed without Clarett, Williams and others who had applied for early eligibility.

In a last-ditch effort, Clarett appealed to the Supreme Court, but two justices separately refused to overturn the lower court's stay, and the initial decision was overturned in favor of the NFL in May.

Williams pondered legal action against the NFL, but ultimately began the lengthy process of seeking NCAA reinstatement in June.

Two separate issues must be decided by the NCAA.

One concerns Williams' violation of his amateur status by signing with an agent, declaring for the draft and accepting money that he has acknowledged exceeds $100,000. In seeking reinstatement, Williams was required to sever ties with agent Mike Azzarelli and repay the benefits, including money from deals with Nike and a football trading card company.

That petition, completed by USC earlier this month, will be considered by a group of about six NCAA staffers headed by Jennifer Strawley, director of student-athlete reinstatement.

Should the NCAA say no, USC could appeal to a five-member Student-Athlete Reinstatement Committee that convenes by conference call and includes a Clemson engineering professor and an athletic administrator from Loyola of Chicago.

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