NFL players won yet another skirmish in their legal war against the owners yesterday when a special master appointed by a federal judge in Baltimore recommended that pension benefits be increased for retired players.
Joseph A. LoCicero, appointed by U.S. District Judge Joseph C. Howard, recommended that benefits be increased by one-third or insurance company annuities be purchased to increase the benefits.
The pension fund case is just one of six legal disputes between the owners and the players, and the players have been coming out ahead lately, prompting Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association, to say that the NFLPA is "the victory-a-week club."
The most important ruling recently was the federal court decision in Minneapolis that the NFLPA is no longer a union. That cleared the way for a trial in Minneapolis on Feb. 17 in the players' bid for free agency.
The NFLPA also hopes to get a trial in New York later this year on its trading card case. It is suing the owners for attempting to cut off the revenue it receives from licensing trading cards -- the NFLPA's major means of funds for its legal war chest.
Before the players can receive the increased pension benefits recommended by LoCicero, the 4th District Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., must uphold Howard's earlier ruling that $30 million in disputed pension fund contributions currently held in escrow by the court be put into the pension plan.
A retired player with four or more years of experience gets $150 a month per season of play in the NFL.
The average payment is $385 a month, which would be increased to $479 if Howard agrees with LoCicero's recommendation. A 10-year veteran earning $1,500 a month would get an increase to $2,000.
The pension fight dates to 1986, when the owners, who had been contributing $12.5 million a year into the fund under the 1982 collective bargaining agreement, argued that they didn't have to contribute any more because the plan was over-funded and the Internal Revenue Service would no longer allow the league to take deductions for the contributions.
The NFLPA contended that it was illegal under the 1982 collective bargaining agreement for the owners to stop funding the plan. The NFLPA won the first step when the courts ruled the owners had to put $17 million in disputed contributions in an escrow account. With interest, the fund is now up to $30 million.
A spokesman for the league downplayed the significance of the LoCicero's recommendation, saying Howard's ruling is under appeal.
The owners set up a new pension plan in 1987 after the old bargaining agreement had expired. The owners agreed to continue paying $150 a month per year of experience, but specified no fixed contribution to the pension fund itself. That wouldn't be affected by this ruling.
On other legal fronts, the NFLPA is suing for treble damages for players on the 1989 developmental squad who received $1,000 a game and for back pay from the final 1987 strike game when the owners wouldn't let the striking players return even though they had declared their strike over.
The owners, meanwhile, have announced they won't have a developmental squad this season and are suing the NFLPA for fixing wages by distributing salary information. The owners are trying to get depositions from 22 agents on the case, but the NFLPA has gone to court to get an injunction against the depositions.
While the two sides battle on the various legal fronts, the NFL is entering its fifth season without a bargaining agreement.