Haywood's been in Clarett's shoe

Updated: September 5, 2003, 1:36 PM ET
By Luke Cyphers | ESPN The Magazine

Spencer Haywood was once in Maurice Clarett's shoes, and walked the road less traveled: He challenged the system.

Haywood, who 33 years ago revolutionized sports by convincing the Supreme Court he had the right to leave college as an underclassman to play in the NBA, likes the embattled Ohio State tailback's chances if Clarett takes on the NFL.

If Clarett fights the league's rule prohibiting players from entering the league until they're three years out of high school, Haywood says, the OSU tailback would win.

"All he has to do is file," Haywood says. "It's in the Sherman Antitrust Act. You can't conspire to stop a person from making a living."

That's what Haywood believes the NFL is doing, same as the NBA was doing back in his day. "If he challenges it, I don't see it holding up." Haywood will get arguments from lawyers who defend the NFL's rule, and from scholars who say antitrust law has grown friendlier toward big business since Haywood's landmark case, which opened the door for undergraduate players. After a year at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado, a record-setting performance on the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, and a year at the University of Detroit, Haywood bolted for the ABA's Denver Rockets and led the league in scoring and rebounding as a 20-year-old rookie.

This is a capitalist system. He should have the opportunity. The same as a young man shooting a basketball, the same as a hockey player, same as a baseball player. It's looking kinda one-sided here. It's time for the NFL to wake up and smell the coffee.
Spencer Haywood, who sued -- and won -- the right to enter the NBA early 33 years ago

He signed with Seattle of the NBA in 1970, was barred by the league, then took the case to the Supreme Court for the right to enter the league before his college class graduated.He won, and says the evolution of the sports world in the last three decades proves he was right then, and he's right now.

"Why are we still talking about this?" Haywood asks. "You've got the Williams sisters and Hingis and McEnroe, Tiger Woods, all kinds of athletes who either left college early or didn't go at all. All of baseball has a choice. In basketball now, you've got kids from Europe who are pros from the time they're 15."

Haywood says it's obvious to everyone that the only athletes who aren't paid are the NCAA players. "With all the money football players bring into a school, it's crazy unfair," he says. "And the kids can't even bring their parents to a game. They're second-class citizens."

Clarett's dilemma brings it all into sharper focus. The central figure in both an academic and NCAA extra-benefits investigations, Clarett has spent the summer in limbo, scrutinized for being paid improperly by an organization that benefited from the multimillion-dollar Bowl Championship Series -- which Clarett starred in last January.

"Come on, you would rather see him not play and not make any money?" Haywood asks. "That doesn't make any sense. This is a capitalist system. He should have the opportunity. The same as a young man shooting a basketball, the same as a hockey player, same as a baseball player. It's looking kinda one-sided here. It's time for the NFL to wake up and smell the coffee."

Though he believes many NBA players have come out too early, he says they all deserve the choice. It didn't kill his league. Once Haywood broke the barrier, the NBA threw off some shackles, too. "We had fundamentals, but it wasn't the NBA-style 1, 2, 3 passes then shoot," he says. "We were something new. I was playing one night in Seattle with Lenny Wilkens. I got the rebound to him and he got the break going, and he saw I was feeling it, flying down the court, and he got it back to me around the foul line and I took off and dunked."

The crowd just stopped, Haywood remembers, and looked at each other. "And then it was like, 'Hey, we could get used to this,'" he says. "You have to remember, the NBA was buttoned-down collars, and it was like here comes this guy in a torn-up T-shirt."

Not that Haywood is an anarchist. He jokingly vows to cut Allen Iverson's hair and remove his tattoos. He runs a summer camp in Michigan where the kids can't take the court until they've completed their reading assignments. He can't wait to meet LeBron James later this month at an NBA rookie event, and let Nike's new $90 million man know who paved the way.

But he won't begrudge any of these kids their money. "Why do you go to college, anyway? To get a job so you can make money in your chosen field," he says. "Well, what if you don't need the degree to make the money?"

Hollywood is filled with blockbuster directors who were film-school dropouts, he says, and the NBA has plenty of players who came out early and returned to school for a diploma -- Jordan, Shaq, Stackhouse and Vince Carter. "You can always go back, and more and more of these guys do," he says.

Spencer Haywood is one of them. "I got my degree this year," he says. "Long Beach State. African History."

There's something poetic in that, maybe something Clarett and the NFL can learn from. A man who famously left school, finishing it. A man who studied history, after he made it.

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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