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NCAA Shuts the Book on Williams

Times Staff Writer

In a long-awaited decision, handed down two days before the USC football season opener, the NCAA announced Thursday that it would not reinstate star receiver Mike Williams.

The organization refused to excuse Williams for violating its amateur and academic rules when he tried to join the NFL early -- an attempt turned back by the courts -- last spring.

Coach Pete Carroll, informed of the decision shortly before his team boarded a charter flight for the Black Coaches Assn. Football Classic in Landover, Md., reacted angrily.

“To take it all the way to one hour before we leave?” he asked. “I couldn’t be more disappointed. It’s very cold and insensitive of them to deny him this opportunity.”

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Williams took the news more calmly. Stopping by the athletic department later in the afternoon, he said he had no plans to appeal.

“I’m kind of done with it, I guess,” he said. “Them taking this long, it just makes me believe they gave me a fair evaluation.”

In a statement, Kevin Lennon, the NCAA’s vice president for membership services, said: “There were two obstacles facing Mike for eligibility, one related to academics and one related to amateurism, and sports agents in particular. Either one was sufficient to prohibit participation in competition. In this case, neither obstacle could be cleared.”

The decision dealt an obvious blow to the Trojans, ranked No. 1 in preseason polls. As a sophomore last season, Williams caught 95 passes for 1,314 yards and 16 touchdowns, helping his team to a share of the national championship.

Now, USC plans to start sophomores Steve Smith and Chris McFoy against Virginia Tech on Saturday.

Thursday’s decision ended a saga that began six months ago when Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett challenged the NFL and its policy of not drafting any player less than three years out of high school.

When Clarett won in federal court, Williams hired an agent and declared himself available for the professional draft. At 6 feet 5 and 230 pounds, the All-American receiver was projected as a first-round pick.

Then an appellate court overturned the lower court’s decision, and Clarett failed in an appeal to the Supreme Court.

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Suddenly, Williams had nowhere to play.

In June, he began the lengthy process of applying for reinstatement.

That required severing ties with agent Mike Azzarelli and paying back more than $100,000, some of it money he’d received in deals with Nike and a trading-card company.

At the same time, Williams had to seek an academic waiver because he had left school during the spring semester, violating NCAA rules that require student-athletes to make steady progress toward their degrees.

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Williams was allowed to practice with the team but left partway through training camp to await resolution of his case.

“In a way, you feel like a distraction,” he said. “There was such a big stink.”

The experience of watching the Clarett case wend its way through the courts prepared him for dealing with the NCAA, he said, adding, “It’s sad to say, but I have practice with this kind of stuff.”

Over the last few weeks, the NCAA repeatedly asked USC for more documents.

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The school sent academic records from Williams’ recently completed summer school classes. This week, at the NCAA’s behest, information about his visits with various NFL teams was sent.

USC took some encouragement from these requests, and, in public at least, administrators said they were hopeful of a favorable result.

But last week, in what many saw as a barometer for the Williams case, the NCAA refused to grant eligibility to Jeremy Bloom, a Colorado football player who signed endorsement contracts as a world champion freestyle skier.

Carroll said Thursday that NCAA officials had given few positive signals.

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“The process has been uphill throughout,” the coach said. “It’s been difficult, anxious, frustrating, all of those things.”

Todd Dickey, the university’s general counsel, said: “We asked them at the very beginning of this process if they were too concerned [about these issues] They knew this at the very beginning and still had us go through months of documentation.”

Lennon, in his statement, said: “Due to the uniqueness of the case and the complexity of issues, follow-up was required in order to provide Mike Williams with a fair and thoughtful analysis. For the institution to suggest that there was a preconceived notion of outcome is patently unfair.”

Though the NCAA has taken what some call a “more student-athlete friendly” approach under President Myles Brand, experts familiar with the case were not surprised.

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Williams “just disregarded all the risks,” said Gary Roberts, a Tulane law professor and sports law expert. “He’s playing high-stakes poker, and he lost.”

His former agent, Azzarelli, has been widely criticized for helping him declare for the draft despite predictions that Clarett’s landmark case might be overturned.

Williams did not blame Azzarelli, saying he’d received advice from various sources before leaving school, but did say that he would spend the next few months considering other agents and that he would try the draft again next spring.

Azzarelli, who called the NCAA’s decision “atrocious,” said he didn’t think it would have a negative effect on Williams.

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“He’ll still be drafted high in the first round,” Azzarelli said.

In the meantime, the university has encouraged Williams to stay in school on scholarship, and the 20-year-old said he would continue with his fall semester classes.

More than anything, he seemed relieved to be done with the NCAA.

“It just took so long,” he said. “It drains the enthusiasm out of you.”

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Times staff writers Chris Dufresne and Gary Klein contributed to this report.


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