Baltimore may win if NFL players lose

MIKE LITTWIN

June 17, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

There's a court case beginning in Minneapolis where a judge and jury, in the best traditions of American jurisprudence, will attempt to separate right from wrong.

Here in Baltimore, we are tempted to hope that wrong prevails.

It could happen.

It could happen that the eight players who have filed an antitrust suit in U.S. District Court against the NFL will lose.

If they lose, we could win. By which I mean anyone who cares about bringing pro football back to Baltimore.

Confused? Sure you are. It's supposed to be confusing; otherwise, there wouldn't be any need for lawyers.

Here's the deal: The NFL is supposed to vote to expand by two cities this fall, with play to begin in 1994. The NFL doesn't really want to expand, for all the obvious reasons, the most obvious of which is greed. The NFL owners want to keep as much money for themselves as they possibly can. Coincidentally, that's also the reason for the lawsuit. The NFL players want free agency, same as players in all the major sports enjoy in one fashion or another. The NFL refuses. Here's where it gets tricky. If the players win the lawsuit, the NFL then has a laundry list of excuses -- chaos, nuclear winter, we just don't wanna -- not to expand in the near future, meaning Baltimore could lose out.

Still confused?

OK.

If the NFL wins the lawsuit, the league is pretty much committed to expanding. And Baltimore -- although this is often difficult to read -- seems to be gaining momentum to emerge as one of the two likely teams.

If the NFL loses, it may not matter where Baltimore stands because the league will drag its collective, if figurative, feet. And believe me, the NFL is to collective and figurative foot-dragging what Michael Jordan is to literal foot-flying.

So, it's tempting to root for the NFL even though the right and wrong of this free-agency business is so clear even a vice president could understand it.

You have free agency. I have free agency.

Let's say you're a lawyer. Or a welder. Or bus driver. Or a teacher. Or a former president of the former Soviet Union.

Whatever you are, if somebody comes by and offers you a better deal to do the same thing you're doing now, you're free to take the job.

In pro football, you basically aren't.

Yes, there is something called a Plan B free agent. This is a bTC player who is not among the 37 players on the 45-man roster that a team is allowed to protect. That player has free agency, and no one else does. Don't ask me why. What it means is you're rewarded for being mediocre.

If you're a good player, there's a just-kidding kind of free agency. The way it works is that if you play for Team A and sign with Team B, then Team B must reward Team A with something of like value -- say, four tickets to any Orioles game. Actually, Team B gets most of Team A's draft choices into the next millennium. Therefore, no one makes a deal.

Mark Rypien is a so-called free agent. He's only the quarterback and MVP of the Super Bowl champions, and he can't sell his services to anyone but the Redskins.

Fair?

The NFL says it's fair. The NFL says the players are making plenty of money now (actually, many are doing OK, just not as well as they could be under capitalism as we understand it). The NFL also says that if there's free agency, the rich teams will have all the good players and the teams from smaller markets would have the same chance as a 190-pound lineman. Sound familiar? This is same sad tale we've heard from baseball folks during the same glorious period in which the game has grown to be nearly as popular as your basic Batman sequel.

In the last 13 seasons, baseball has had 11 different champions -- big market, midsized market, small market -- while setting attendance records. In football, meanwhile, the only teams that ever win the Super Bowl are the 49ers and the Redskins.

You can't feel too bad for the players. The only reason this has come to a trial is that the football players' union has never been able to stand up to the owners. What the players did instead was to fold the union altogether and take the NFL to court in hopes that the jurors will have more guts than the players themselves.

And yet, if there's any justice, the players should win.

The NFL, it seems to me, has no case (although it could be fairly pointed out that my law expertise goes only as far as Perry Mason reruns). But, in a jury system where many jurors probably see the players as overpaid crybabies, the NFL may win.

As a former president might say, that would be wrong, that's for sure.

It just wouldn't be wrong for Baltimore.

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