High court lets stand NFL's free-agent restrictions

January 08, 1991|By Vito Stellino

The National Football League Players Association finally lost the first round of its battle for free agency yesterday when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by players who contend the league violates federal antitrust laws.

But the players vowed to continue the free-agency fight in a new lawsuit.

"This is a minor skirmish in a major war," said Jim Quinn, an attorney for the players, after the high court let stand a Nov. 1, 1989, ruling by the 8th Circuit Court that the owners' restrictions on free agents are legal.

Even though it appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Players Association announced on Nov. 6, 1989, that it had decertified as a union and filed a new lawsuit on the grounds that the decertification means the owners no longer have a labor exemption.

That second case, named for New York Jets running back Freeman McNeil, is being pursued in federal court in Minneapolis.

But the Supreme Court's ruling effectively killed the suit, named for former offensive lineman Marvin Powell, that the union filed on Oct. 15, 1987, when it ended a 24-day strike without getting a collective bargaining agreement.

It also means that all the restricted free agents from 1987 through 1989 no longer have any chance to collect damages from the owners. The 1990 class of free agents is covered by the McNeil suit.

Only two justices, Byron R. White, who was known as "Whizzer" White when he was the NFL's highest-paid player at $15,800 in 1938, and Harry A. Blackmun, voted to hear the suit. It takes the approval of a minimum of four justices for the high court to hear a case.

The players, though, predicted they eventually will win the second suit.

"We are highly confident that the players will prevail in those claims," Gene Upshaw,

executive director of the NFL Players Association, said of the second suit.

The owners immediately called for new negotiations, but they were brushed off by the NFLPA, which insists it can't bargain because it is no longer a union.

"We hope the Supreme Court's ruling will hasten the NFLPA's return to the bargaining table," said Joe Browne, a spokesman for the league.

Quinn replied, "What bargaining table?"

Dan Rooney, the president of the Pittsburgh Steelers who helped negotiate the last agreement in 1982, said he was disappointed to hear the players have no interest in bargaining.

"I'm not claiming victory. I'm not walking around gloating," Rooney said. "The union has to realize it's part of the industry and should be at the bargaining table."

Although both sides thought the Supreme Court was likely to decline to hear the case, the NFLPA was encouraged last month when the Justice Department recommended that the high court hear the case and rule for the players. The court declined to follow that advice.

It seems likely that the status quo will continue, with the NFL operating without a collective bargaining agreement with its current free-agent restrictions that require a team to give compensation when it signs a protected free agent to the team that lost a player.

Under a separate provision, known as Plan B, teams may protect 37 players after each season and permit the rest to become free agents. Salaries have risen under the plan, although the owners contend the players have lost more than $300 million in wages and benefits because of the strike and the three-year legal battle and have nothing to show for it. The owners have stopped paying severance and pension benefits, among other things.

"I smile when I hear that," Quinn said. "Give me free agency any day."

The high court ruling also means the league is likely to continue the collegiate draft indefinitely, even though it only goes through the 1992 season in the contract that was negotiated in 1982.

"I know they'll take the position the draft goes on forever," Quinn said. "I'll challenge that in a second if I get a chance."

The two sides are waiting a ruling by U.S. District Judge David Doty in Minneapolis on the question of whether the NFLPA is a union. Quinn said the judge has set a tentative trial date of Aug. 1.

Although Quinn predicts ultimate victory, he said fighting the NFL in court is no easy task.

"They've got good lawyers and lots of money and lots of time, but I think we can convince a jury their rules aren't reasonable," he said.

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