disruption of the industry. It’s a term usually reserved for Silicon Valley’s CEOs and VC investors, but this summer golf fans got to know the concept in depth. While LIV Golf has gone from a hoax to a moral dilemma to a conspicuous competitor in just a few short months, the professional golf industry seems to have made a mistake. Suddenly, high-profile stars, which reportedly now include Brooks Koepka, have jumped onto LIV Golf’s 54-hole booze cruise. The hysteria is high and the end seems near, but maybe that’s just the fear of the unknown. Golf has never seen such a schism, but as the sport’s other great defectors — from Herschel Walker’s USFL dominance to David Beckham’s MLS odyssey — prove over the years, it all comes down to the wash…eventually.
Let’s put aside all other reasons why Herschel Walker is in the news right now. In 1983, the Heisman-winner and national champion — the undisputed heir to Walter Payton — made headlines when he decided to give up not only his senior season in Georgia but the NFL altogether and sign with the New Jersey Generals of the fledgling USFL . At the time, players weren’t eligible for the NFL Draft until their senior season, a rule Walker sidestepped by going to New Jersey, but there was another hurdle: the USFL’s $1.8 million salary cap. To make a decent amount of what he would have in the NFL, Walker signed a “professional services” contract not with the generals but with the team’s owner, Oklahoma oil magnate J. Walter Duncan.
Walker played three seasons in the USFL, winning the rushing title in two of those seasons. He set the professional football record for rushing yards in a single season in 1985 with 2,411. In 1985, the Generals’ new owner, Donald Trump, filed his infamous $1 lawsuit against the NFL. As NFL teams read the affidavits, they began to suspect the USFL was about to go under, and the Dallas Cowboys swooped in and acquired the rights to Walker with the 114th pick in the NFL draft. By the fall, the USFL was dead and Walker was a cowboy.
That player-friendly politics (the USFL’s junior-year eligibility) and money (J. Walter Duncan’s deep pockets) are the two suns that all professional athletes ultimately orbit. Their window of opportunity is tight, the competition fierce, and they know they – not the governing body that employs them – are the product. However, there is also a warning for the organizers of Tale LIV Golf. In sport, the product is bound to fail if the overall level of the competition isn’t high enough, despite a few hand-picked superstars. Food for thought … for both sides.
dr J. You know this cat. The world’s most ubiquitous basketball icon ahead of Jordan. But what you may not know — or just forgot — is that Erving spent the first six years of his professional basketball career in the ABA. Similar to Walker and the NFL, the NBA had a rule that prohibited players less than four years out of high school from entering the draft. The ABA recognized an opportunity and instituted a “hardship” policy that would allow players to enter the league early from college in exceptional circumstances. Erving took advantage of this and left U-Mass Amherst after his 1971 junior season to sign a seven-year, $500,000 contract with the ABA’s Virginia Squires.
In 1972, Erving, now qualified for the NBA, was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks (NBA) while simultaneously signing a $1 million deal with the Atlanta Hawks (NBA) and attempting to terminate his contract with the Virginia Squires , after discovering the agent who brokered his deal was secretly an associate of the team. When the NBA tried to quell the internal dispute between the Bucks and Hawks, a restraining order was issued in court, urging Erving to report himself to the Squires. Erving appealed the restraining order but rejoined the Squires, who eventually sold Erving’s contract to the New Jersey Nets (ABA) in 1973. Three years and two ABA championships later, the Nets and Erving joined the NBA as part of the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. Still following all of that? The New York Knicks, now part of the same league as the Nets, then demanded that the Nets pay $4.8 million to invade their market, leaving the Nets unable to give Erving the promised raise. Erving persevered and was eventually traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, where he would end his career.
That perhaps loyalty to an employer who has no loyalty to you is misplaced? That the grass might be the same green color on both sides? That no matter how much you advocate and agitate for better working conditions and self-improvement, you are just a cog in the great capitalist death machine? We’re eagerly awaiting DJ’s thoughts on the latter.
After a 15-year NHL career in which he led the league in seven goals, Bobby Hull cracked a joke: Pay me a million dollars, he said of the nascent World Hockey Association’s interest in signing him and me enjoy playing wherever you want. Lo and behold, the WHA pooled their resources, crossed their fingers, and called Hull’s bluff. Despite a legal battle by the NHL to try and stop one of its biggest stars moving to a rival (sound familiar?), Hull was a member of the Winnipeg Jets in time for the 1972-73 season.
Hull was named WHA MVP in two of his first three seasons and led the Jets to two AVCO Cups while scoring a whopping 77 goals in 1974-75. Interestingly – similar to Ryder Cup eligibility questions for the LIV Golf expats – Hull was not allowed to represent Team Canada at the 1972 Summit Series, which pitted Team Canada’s top NHL players against the USSR’s top players. In 1979, after the NHL-WHA merger, Hull came out of retirement and returned to the NHL ice for his former WHA team in the face of ongoing financial problems.
That there’s less competition is certainly nice for the old Statline, but it often comes at a price – in the case of Hull and LIV golf pros, the opportunity to represent their nations on the international stage. There is also an interesting parallel between the Wirtz family’s ownership of the Blackhawks, who have long underpaid and exploited Hull and were believed to have ties to the Chicago mafia, and the Saudi supporters of LIV Golf. Lay down with dogs, wake up with fleas, as the old saying goes.
In the middle of the 2006/2007 LaLiga season, David Beckham—Real Madrid Galactico, lingerie model, husband of a Spice Girl—shocked the football world when he announced he was going to America [GASP!] after the season was over. The once-biggest sporting icon in the world was on his way to La La Land to pay something called ‘soccer’ for a team called the Galaxy who were struggling to stay in the third division of most European football systems. You can imagine how that went across the pond.
The first reaction was brutal. Real Madrid manager Fabio Capello explained that Beckham played his last game for Real Madrid with six months left in the season. President Ramon Calderon was quoted as saying: “Beckham is going to Hollywood to be half a movie star.” But Beckham played again for Real Madrid and won the La Liga title in his final season with the club. More importantly, however, Beckham’s westward expansion paved the way for other aging but over-talented European stars – from Andrea Pirlo to Kaka to Zlatan Ibrahimovich. In anticipation of his arrival, the MLS also introduced the Designated Player system, which allowed teams to have three salary-cap-exempt players on their roster at any given time. The rule would define MLS for much of the next decade, and the rising financial tide lifted not only the league but the boat of football in America.
Beckham, 32, was making $6.5 million a year as a member of LA Galaxy, so that’s the money thing again. It is important. A lot of. But quality of life, too, and Beckham’s lavish life in LA, free from the pressures of the Bernabeu, created a blueprint for mock retirement for Europe’s elite footballers. Although the exodus across the Atlantic is now going in the opposite direction, a similar desire for a simpler life can be seen in a similar age group of athletes on the LIV Golf roster. But perhaps this is both inspiration and opportunity for Champions Tour reform on the PGA Tour. Lower age requirements, bigger wallets, 54 holes, shotgun launches, a proving ground for innovative ideas. Who knows, it might actually be fun and good. We can dream, can’t we?
Check out college football’s history — from leather helmets to the turnover chain — and you’ll hardly find a freshman campaign more mythical than Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett’s. He rushed for a then-OSU freshman record of 1,237 yards and 18 touchdowns and led the Buckeyes to an unbeaten season and the 2002 National Championship, scoring the winning touchdown in double overtime. During the off-season, however, Clarett was accused of academic misconduct – specifically not attending classes during his freshman year in Columbus – and although the subsequent investigation found no conclusive evidence, he was nonetheless suspended for the 2003 season. Rather than train and bid his time to return to the NCAA ranks, Clarett relocated to Los Angeles and sued the NFL for the right to participate in the 2004 draft.
Clarett won his case in court but had the decision reversed in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Because Clarett had hired an agent in anticipation of a favorable decision, the NCAA refused to reinstate his eligibility for the 2004 season. Clarett was eventually drafted by the Denver Broncos in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft, but came out overweight and out of shape and was released in August without ever making an NFL snap. In January 2006, he was arrested for armed robbery and in August of that year, while his previous case was pending, he was pulled over while making an illegal U-turn, with police discovering a variety of weapons in his vehicle, ranging from an AK-47 to to a katana. He was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.
Although Clarett has turned his life upside down and grown into a mental health advocate and entrepreneur since his release, his case is so extreme that it’s difficult to make a direct connection. Given recent stories from PGA Tour players like Willy Wilcox’s struggles with mental health and addiction – not to mention Phil Mickelson’s reported playing problems – it’s a worthwhile reminder that there’s a lot more to every athlete than meets the eye. So the question becomes: what, if any, professional mental health support does LIV Golf currently offer its players – who are currently strapped to a PR bullseye – at the moment? These are the things a true sports league is responsible for, and LIV will have to grow up fast if they are to protect not only their assets but their people as well.
In 2009, Brandon Jennings, the highly acclaimed Arizona Wildcats, became the first prospect since the NBA banned players under the age of 19 from drafting in order to forgo college to play in Europe for money. There he signed with Lottomatic Rome, which paid him $1.65 million in concert with a $2 million endorsement deal from Under Armor, one of the brand’s first big hits in basketball. Life experience is nice, but it doesn’t fill the gas tank.
After a season in Serie A in which Jennings averaged 27 points per game and shot just over 35% from the floor, he was picked 10th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks. The election made Jennings the first player ever to drop out of college to take a professional overseas contract with the NBA and seemed to validate his decision. While Jennings flashed brilliance throughout his career, he was hampered by injury and a league lockout. He was eventually traded to the Pistons before bouncing through the Magic and Knicks organizations, ending up in China, the G League and Russia before retiring in 2018.
Ready to get philosophical? Don’t confuse movement with progress. Jennings hopped through four different leagues and nine different teams while trying to find a better way to build a basketball career, eventually ending up back where he started. Is this how we will see LIV Golf – particularly talented amateurs like Ratchanon Chantananuwat and David Puig – in 10 years? Hopefully not for your sake. For golf maybe.