Not all change is for the better

Updated: September 23, 2003, 4:11 PM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

He had climbed on board the changing times, inspired at the 1968 Olympics by his U.S. teammates, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and, most of all, his mother still picking cotton sunrise to sundown for $2.50 a day in Mississippi.

"I was caught up in the revolution," Spencer Haywood said from his suburban Detroit home the other day. "It was life and death for me. It was, 'We're going to kill you.' It wasn't an issue of challenging the system. People were hitting me in the stomach and waiting for me to fall over. It was another world in 1970. I had it as bad as Jackie Robinson -- or worse."

They hated him for fighting the system 33 years ago, challenging in the courts the NBA's rule that refused college underclassmen early entry into the league. There was no one declaring it a just reward to a corrupt college system, no one noticing that Haywood had the rare resume and talent to make the move with ease. He had gone to the Olympic Games as a freshman and obliterated the world with his strength and savvy, but Haywood never heard the cheers, the encouragement, that now goes to beleaguered Ohio State Buckeyes back Maurice Clarett.

At first, Haywood impulsively cheered for Clarett to take on the NFL monolith. In fact, he said as much in a recent interview with ESPN The Magazine. Yet ironically now Haywood, who's responsible for the most dramatic turn in basketball born out of these past three decades, responsible for beating the NBA in the Supreme Court, wishes Clarett would just find his way back to the classroom, back to football Saturdays. Haywood watched what happened to the NBA, and for the good of the game, the good of most of these college kids, he prays the revolution is over.

"If he had a choice, I would advise Clarett to stick it out (in college)," Haywood said. "First thing is, I think those guys will hit that kid so hard that they'll break him up. But I just think, don't tamper with everything now. Let football stay pure and clean. Don't let it come down like basketball. (The NBA is) dropping in ratings and attendance ...

"People don't want to come out and see this stuff."

Football is far from pure and clean, but it has remained uncorrupted of the kids storming the boards of the draft day war rooms. They guarantee to leave the league shorter on competent blocking and tackling, longer on crushed bones and psyches. Clarett could change everything with a lawsuit that would make the sophomore eligible for the 2004 draft, just two years out of high school, a year earlier than the NFL allows. His lawyer, Alan Milstein, had a meeting set with two NFL officials to discuss Clarett's case on Monday in Washington.

The old white men lording over the NFL will fight Clarett to the earth's end, but it sounds like just one attorney is declaring his utmost confidence that the rule can sustain a court fight: Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Wise is the NFL to protect its product, resisting the temptation of jeopardizing its sold out stadiums and monumental television money. Unlike the NBA's players association, NFLPA president Gene Upshaw understands backing the league on the issue is also backing his players. He's saving veteran's jobs, unlike union president Billy Hunter in basketball. If Hunter would just heed David Stern's proposal to make 20 the minimum age of entrance into the NBA, it would benefit the product on the floor and save jobs for older, fundamentally sound professionals.

"Know why Bill Hunter doesn't speak to me?" Haywood said. "Because I said the requirement should be to the age of 20. What it is doing now, is it's gotten these kids in the eighth and ninth grade to stop studying, stop everything and put it all on basketball. I said I agree with David Stern.

"Gene Upshaw is a man of integrity and they want to try to maintain the integrity of the league. He doesn't want to have watered down kids out there who are not qualified. The older NBA players are losing jobs because of these kids coming in. ... Someone should stand up and say to the union that we should look at the Haywood rule and realize this wasn't for a high school student. It wasn't meant for a teenager.

Along basketball's jagged path of early entry, Haywood has actually said to himself, "Oh God, what have I done? ... I created a monster." What's more, it breaks his heart the way young players today have never heard his story, never acknowledged his struggle. They threatened his life on the way to the NBA, tossed bottles from the stands and ostracized him in the locker rooms. He tells the story of Chris Webber using Haywood and his foundation to get back in the good graces of the judge in Detroit in Webber's perjury trial, just to dismiss Haywood afterward, once the case had been cleared with community service.

"They just used me," Haywood said. "Before we walked out, Chris' people told me, 'You can't talk to him anymore.' I called out to him, 'Chris ... Chris ...' And he just walked away."

Nevertheless, Haywood swears he's still there for the young, troubled athlete needing his counsel. If Clarett ever wanted to discuss the pros and cons of challenging the system, Haywood is just a telephone call away. If basketball's young stars aren't interested in a pioneer's story, he'll be glad to tell it to a football player.

"They're coming to the NBA saying, 'I'm going to learn the game there,' because the players association has encouraged them to come in," Haywood said. "I say right now the American athlete is dunking and dribbling himself right out of the league."

"I don't even want to imagine what would happen with football."

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Bergen Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.

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