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The Loop

The Ex-Pats

How it worked out for (and what we can learn from) sports' biggest defectors

June 21, 2022
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Patrick Smith

Industry disruption. It’s a term usually reserved for Silicon Valley CEOs and VC investors, but this summer golf fans have become intimately acquainted with the concept. As LIV Golf has evolved from joke to moral quandary to unignorable competitor in the span of just a few short months, the professional golf industry has seemingly glitched. Suddenly, in-their-prime stars, now reportedly including Brooks Koepka, have jumped ship to LIV Golf’s 54-hole booze cruise. Hysteria is high and the end seems nigh, but perhaps that’s just the fear of the unknown. Golf has never experienced such a schism, but as sports' other great defections—from Herschel Walker's USFL dominance to David Beckham's MLS odyssey—over the years prove, it all comes out in the wash ... eventually.

Herschel Walker

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Focus On Sport

Let’s put aside all of the other reasons Herschel Walker is in the news at the moment. In 1983, the Heisman winner and national champion—the unquestioned heir-apparent to Walter Payton—made headlines when he decided to forego not only his senior season at Georgia, but the NFL entirely, signing with the New Jersey Generals of the fledgling USFL. At the time, players were not eligible for the NFL Draft until their senior seasons, a rule which Walker circumvented by heading to New Jersey, but there was another hurdle: The USFL’s $1.8-million salary cap. In order to earn a commensurate amount to what he would have in the NFL, Walker signed a “professional services” contract not with the Generals but instead the team’s owner, Oklahoma oil magnate J. Walter Duncan.

How did it work out?

Walker played three seasons in the USFL, winning the rushing title in two of them. He set the professional football record for rushing yards in a single season in 1985 with 2,411. In 1985, new Generals owner Donald Trump launched his infamous $1 lawsuit against the NFL. Reading the writing on the affidavits, NFL teams began to suspect the USFL was about to go under and the Dallas Cowboys pounced, acquiring the rights to Walker with the 114th pick in the NFL Draft. By the fall, the USFL was dead and Walker was a Cowboy.

What can we learn?

That player-friendly policy (the USFL’s junior-year eligibility) and money (J. Walter Duncan’s deep pockets) are the two suns all professional athletes ultimately orbit. Their window is narrow, the competition is cutthroat, and they know that they—not the governing body that employs them—are the product. There's also a cautionary for tale LIV Golf organizers, however. In sports, the product inevitably fails when the overall level of competition, a few hand-picked superstars notwithstanding, isn’t high enough. Food for thought … for both sides.

Julius Erving

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Dick Raphael

Dr. J. You know this cat. The planet’s most ubiquitous pre-Jordan basketball icon. But what you might not know—or just forgot—is that Erving spent the first six years of professional basketball career in the ABA. Much like Walker and the NFL, the NBA had a rule prohibiting players who were less than four years removed from high school from entering the draft. Sensing an opportunity, the ABA instituted a “hardship” policy that would allow players to enter the league early from college under exceptional circumstances. Erving took advantage of this, leaving U-Mass Amherst after his junior season in 1971 to sign a seven-year, $500,000 contract with the ABA’s Virginia Squires.

How did it work out?

In 1972, Erving, now eligible 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 void his contract with the Virgina Squires after he discovered the agent who negotiated his deal was secretly an employee of the team. As the NBA tried to squash the internal squabble between the Bucks and Hawks, an injunction was issued in court requiring Erving to report to the Squires. Erving appealed the injunction but returned to 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 this?? The New York Knicks, now part of the same league as the Nets, then demanded the Nets pay $4.8 million for invading their market, rendering the Nets unable to give Erving the raise they promised. Erving held out and was eventually traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, where he would finish his career.

What can we learn?

That perhaps loyalty to an employer who has no loyalty to you is misplaced? That perhaps the grass is the same color green on both sides? That no matter how hard you advocate and agitate for better working conditions and self improvement you are but a cog in the great capitalist death machine? We eagerly await DJ’s thoughts on that last one.

Bobby Hull

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B Bennett

After a 15-year career in the NHL, in which he led the league in goals in seven of them, Bobby Hull cracked a joke: Pay me a million dollars, he said of the upstart World Hockey Association’s interest in signing him, and I’ll happily play wherever you want. Lo and behold, the WHA pooled their resources, crossed their fingers, and called Hull’s bluff. Despite litigation by the NHL to try to halt one of their biggest star’s moves to a rival (sound familiar?), Hull was a member of the Winnipeg Jets in time for the 1972-73 season.

How did it work out?

Hull was named WHA MVP in two of his first three seasons, leading the Jets to two AVCO Cups while scoring a whopping 77 goals in 1974-75. Interestingly enough—much like questions over Ryder Cup eligibility for the LIV Golf ex-pats—Hull was not allowed to represent Team Canada at the 1972 Summit Series, which saw Team Canada’s best NHL players faceoff against the best players from the USSR. In 1979, after the NHL-WHA merger, Hull came out of retirement, returning to the NHL ice for his former WHA team amid ongoing financial issues.

What can we learn?

That beating up on lesser competition sure is nice for the ol’ statline, but it often comes at a cost—in the case of both Hull and the LIV Golf pros, the opportunity to represent their nations on the international stage. There’s also an interesting parallel between the Wirtz family’s ownership of the Blackhawks, who long underpaid and exploited Hull and were thought to have mob ties in Chicago, and LIV Golf’s Saudi backers. Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas as the old saying goes.

David Beckham

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Icon Sports Wire

Midway through the 2006-2007 La Liga season, David Beckham—Real Madrid galactico, underwear model, husband of a Spice Girl—shocked the futbol world when he announced that he would be going to America [GASP!] following the season. The one-time biggest sports icon on the planet was headed to La La Land to pay something called “soccer” on a team called the Galaxy that would struggle to stay up in the third tier of most European soccer systems. You can imagine how this went over across the pond.

How did it work out?

The initial reaction was brutal. Real Madrid manager Fabio Capello stated that Beckham had played his last game for Real Madrid, even with six months remaining in the season. President Ramon Calderon was quoted as saying “Beckham is going to Hollywood to be half a film star.” But Beckham did play for Real Madrid again, winning the La Liga title in his final season with the club. More importantly, however, Beckham’s westward expansion blazed a trail for other aging-but-uber-talented European stars—from Andrea Pirlo to Kaka to Zlatan Ibrahimovich—to follow. In anticipation of his arrival, the MLS also instituted the Designated Player system, allowing teams to carry three salary-cap exempt players on their roster at a given time. The rule would come to define MLS for much of the next decade and the rising financial tide lifted not just the league, but the boat of soccer in America.

What can we learn?

The 32-year-old Beckham was being paid $6.5 million a year as a member of the LA Galaxy, so again, the money thing. It matters. A lot. But so does quality of life, and Beckham’s posh LA life free from the pressure of the Bernabeu built a faux-retirement blueprint for Europe’s elite footballers. Though the exodus across the Atlantic is now headed in the opposite direction, a similar desire for an easier life in a similar athlete age bracket can be seen across the LIV Golf roster. But perhaps this is both inspiration and opportunity for Champions Tour reform on the PGA Tour. Lower age requirement, bigger purses, 54-hole rounds, shotgun starts, a testing ground for innovative ideas. Who knows, it could actually be fun and good. We can dream, can’t we?

Maurice Clarett

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Al Tielemans

Look at the history of college football—from leather helmets to the Turnover Chain—and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more mythical freshman campaign than that of Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett. He rushed for a then-OSU freshman record 1,237 yards and 18 touchdowns, leading the Buckeyes to an undefeated season and the 2002 National Championship, scoring the winning touchdown in double overtime. During the offseason, however, Clarett was accused of academic misconduct—specifically that he didn’t attend any classes during his freshman year in Columbus—and while the ensuing investigation didn’t find any conclusive evidence, he was suspended for the 2003 season nonetheless. Instead of working out and biding his time to return to the NCAA ranks, Clarett moved to Los Angeles and sued the NFL for the right to enter the 2004 draft.

How did it work out?

Clarett won his case at trial but had the decision reversed at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Because Clarett had hired an agent in anticipation of a favorable ruling, 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 arrived overweight and out of gameshape and was released in August without ever taking an NFL snap. In January of 2006, he was arrested for armed robbery and in August of that same year, with his former case still pending, he was pulled over while making an illegal u-turn, at which time police discovered a variety of weapons in his vehicle, ranging from an AK-47 to a katana. He was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison.

What can we learn?

Though Clarett has since turned his life around, becoming a mental health advocate and entrepreneur since his release, his case is so extreme it’s tough to make any direct correlation. That said, with recent stories of PGA Tour players like Willy Wilcox’s struggles with mental health and addiction—not to mention Phil Mickelson’s reported gambling problems—it’s a worthwhile reminder that there’s far more to every athlete than meets the eye. Thus the question becomes: What, if any, professional mental health support is LIV Golf offering to its players—currently strapped to a PR bullseye—at present? These are the things a real sports league is responsible for, and LIV is going to have to grow up fast if it wants to protect not just its assets, but its human beings.

Brandon Jennings

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Francesco Richieri

In 2009, highly touted Arizona Wildcats commit Brandon Jennings became the first prospect since the NBA barred players under 19 from entering the draft to forego college to play for pay in Europe. There he signed for Lottomatic Rome, who paid him $1.65 million in concert with a $2-million Under Armour endorsement deal, one of the brand’s first major plays in the basketball space. Life experience is nice, but it doesn’t fill the gas tank.

How did it work out?

After one season in Serie A in which Jennings averaged 27 points a game on just over 35% shooting from the floor, he was selected 10th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks. The pick made Jennings the first ever player to forego college for a professional overseas contract to be drafted into the NBA and seemed to validate his decision. While Jennings flashed brilliance on and off 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, landing in China, the G League, and Russia before retiring in 2018.

What can we learn?

Ready to get philosophical? Don’t mistake movement for progress. Jennings bounced around four different leagues and nine different teams while trying to find a better way to build a basketball career and ultimately it landed him back where he began. Is that the way we’ll look at LIV Golf—especially talented amateurs like Ratchanon Chantananuwat and David Puig—in 10 years? For their sake, hopefully not. For golf’s sake, maybe so.