He is a wisp of a man, pencil-thin, courtly looking, with a froth of white hair swept back like a jazz musician’s. Around him, six high-powered lawyers are debating strategy for his trial, starting today, on federal racketeering and mail fraud charges in U.S. District Court in Chicago.
He is Norby Walters, 58, a New York sports agent.
Walters and partner Lloyd Bloom, 29, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., are accused of enticing 44 college athletes to sign professional contracts with them in violation of National Collegiate Athletic Assn. rules, and then threatening with bodily harm some of those who wished to end their contracts.
According to an 85-page indictment, they lured the student-athletes--all of them black, many of them poor and products of single-parent homes--with cash, interest-free loans, cars, clothing, concert and airline tickets, hotel accommodations, use of limousines, insurance policies, trips to major entertainment events and introductions to prominent entertainers.
They allegedly concealed the arrangements by post-dating the contracts so the athletes could retain their college eligibility. If convicted, Walters and Bloom each faces a maximum of 70 years in prison and $2 million in fines. They have pleaded not guilty.
This case represents the first time sports agents have been tried under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, an expanded use of a federal racketeering charge generally applied to cases involving organized crime.
The trial also promises the first detailed look into corruption in big-time college sports.
In a pretrial agreement, 43 of the 44 student-athletes--many of them now professionals, including Ronnie Harmon of the Buffalo Bills and Ron Morris of the Chicago Bears--agreed to enter a one-year federal probation program, perform up to 250 hours of community service, and repay scholarship money received while under contract to the agents, in return for testimony against Walters and Bloom.
Their stories are expected to provide an inside look into the system of payoffs, concealed arrangements and abuses by school officials, boosters and agents that have tarnished college sports. According to the New York Times, 49 of the NCAA’s 106 Division 1A football schools were either censured, sanctioned or put on probation by the NCAA at least once in the last decade.
Walters, a one-time New York restaurant owner, made a name for himself in the 1970s as a major booking agent for black musical acts. In 1984, Bloom, a college dropout and professional party arranger, approached Walters about expanding his music business to include representing professional athletes.
The two joined forces, and for a while were extremely successful, at one time representing 40 to 50 athletes, including at least five players selected in the first round of the National Football League’s 1987 draft. All the players signed with the two before their college eligibility had expired, in direct violation of NCAA rules.
The FBI began its investigation in March, 1987 after reports that Kathe Clements, then an associate of Northbrook (Ill.) agent Steve Zucker, had been slashed and beaten in her office by a man wearing a ski mask and gloves.
According to Zucker, he and Clements had recently signed three of Walters’ former clients--former Nebraska running back Doug DuBose, now with the San Francisco 49ers; former Tennessee wide receiver Tim McGee, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, and former Washington defensive lineman Reggie Rogers, the Detroit Lions’ No. 1 draft pick.
Zucker said that Walters and Bloom had harassed Clements in a telephone conversation. Zucker also claimed that Bloom told Clements about a Zucker client who allegedly owed Bloom and Walters money, warning that “People who don’t pay their debts can have their hands broken.”
A federal grand jury was convened in Chicago that May, and 17 months later delivered indictments against the agents, accusing them, among other things, of physical threats against at least four players who tried to break their contracts--Morris of the Bears and Southern Methodist University; Maurice Douglass of the Bears and Kentucky; Everett Gay of the Dallas Cowboys and Texas, and Tony Woods of the Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh.
Morris told the grand jury that when he attempted to break his contract with the agents, Bloom warned him he would have someone break his legs and he “would never play football again.”
Named by the grand jury as an unindicted co-conspirator was reputed New York mobster Michael Franzese, 37, a lifelong friend of Walters who allegedly invested $50,000 in Walters’ enterprise.
The prosecution must tread a narrow line if it is to win the case--namely, that the agents defrauded numerous universities by signing their players to professional contracts that made them ineligible to compete in collegiate sports.
But many of the 28 schools represented by the 43 student-athletes have been reprimanded or punished for breaking NCAA rules, themselves. At least six of the schools mentioned, including SMU, were put on probation for the same sorts of violations of which Walters and Bloom are accused.
How then, to distinguish the acts of the universities from the acts of the agents?
Thus, the government is concentrating on seven “clean” schools: Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Purdue, Temple and Miami of Ohio.
The defense, on the other hand, is expected to argue that it is impossible to defraud what is already a fraudulent system.