Rothman is legal All-Pro, but this isn't USFL

PRO FOOTBALL

June 28, 1992|By VITO STELLINO

When they call the roll of the men who've shaped the NFL, George Halas, Paul Brown, Bert Bell, Pete Rozelle and Tex Schramm always make the list.

There's a chance that another name may be added in a few weeks -- Frank Rothman.

Frank Rothman?

That's right, the lawyer for the owners in their antitrust court battle that has completed its first two weeks in Minneapolis.

Rothman, 66, had a major impact on the league by successfully defending the NFL in the USFL lawsuit in 1986. The USFL won only $3 in damages and went out of business.

That's why the NFL called on the former head of MGM/UA Entertainment to defend it in the antitrust action filed by the players.

Rothman drew a tough assignment, because he has to try to convince the jury that the NFL needs restrictions on the players to obtain competitive balance and save the small markets. That's a tough sell, because the NFL doesn't have much competitive balance now.

Four teams -- the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers (four each) and the Oakland-Los Angeles Raiders and Washington Redskins (three each) -- have won 14 of the past 18 Super Bowls. Meanwhile, three small-market cities (Oakland, Baltimore and St. Louis) lost teams in the past decade, so the current system isn't doing much for them.

It didn't help Rothman that the players got the kind of jury they wanted. The jurors are all women who have little or no interest in football, so they aren't likely to be impressed when such mythic figures as Don Shula and Chuck Noll testify that free agency will hurt the league.

Rothman, though, got off to a fast start in his opening argument a week ago, when he stressed that the players are making so much money that the system doesn't damage them. Rothman not only hammered at the players' salaries, but also showed a deft way with words. This is the way he described the raise Don Majkowski got from $1.5 million to $1.7 million after a poor season in 1990:

"We're such bad guys, this is what we're going to do. We're going to give you another raise," Rothman said. The implication was obvious. How could the NFL be the bad guys when the

owners were giving raises after poor seasons?

One juror apparently got the message. She told Judge David Doty she felt "they" make too much money. She apparently meant the players. When Doty explained the case was about antitrust laws, not money, she said she could be fair. But when a St. Paul reporter wrote the next day that her comments could be grounds for a mistrial, Doty dismissed her.

Rothman, who planted the idea in the mind of at least one juror that the case was about money, got the owners off to a good start. He still faces an uphill fight. Seven of the eight players who sued took the stand -- Tim McDonald of the Phoenix Cardinals will testify this week -- and argued that the case isn't about money, but the right to move.

Mark Collins, cornerback for the New York Giants, was an effective witness, saying, "It's just principle. Once your contract is up, you should be able to go anywhere else to work. That's the way it works anywhere else except the NFL."

Stan White, a Baltimore lawyer and former Colt who represents Cleveland defensive back Frank Minnifield, argued that baseball has proved that big-market teams that buy free agents don't necessarily thrive.

"The experience of baseball proves [that] beyond a shadow of a doubt," White testified.

The players seemed to have overcome Rothman's fast start as the trial heads into its third week. Now, the question is whether Rothman's rhetorical skills can overcome the weak hand he has to play in this high-stakes courtroom battle.

Rothman's ability to sway the jury likely will determine whether the NFL expands, but White said: "What I'm hoping for is a players' victory and a fast settlement [that would clear the way for expansion]."

If the owners lose, though, they're more likely to appeal than settle.

*

Reading the files: One of the sidelights of the trial is that it presents the public a rare look at some of the infighting in the NFL.

For example, check out this exchange of letters from Charley Casserly, the general manager of the Washington Redskins, and Ernie Accorsi, the former executive vice president of football BTC operations for the Cleveland Browns, in 1990, after the Redskins failed in an attempt to trade for Minnifield. The Browns wanted Jim Lachey, and the Redskins were offering Joe Jacoby.

After Accorsi wrote Casserly that he would report Casserly to the league if he tampered with Minnifield, Casserly fired back that Accorsi was leaking to CBS.

"I resent the fact that you are using me and the Washington Redskins as a scapegoat in your attempts to sign Frank Minnifield. . . . Your conduct is outrageous, your letter, unprofessional, and the leak to CBS, scheming," Casserly wrote.

Accorsi replied, "Your emotional and immature response to a simple letter speaks volumes."

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