Out-of-court settlement may suit city best McNeil case outcome to affect expansion

July 05, 1992|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

If the players win their lawsuit against the NFL, Baltimore and its hopes for landing an expansion team will be the losers, right?

Not everybody thinks so.

"I don't think it has any bearing on expansion. It's a red herring," said Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said: "We're committed to a two-team expansion. The only issue is the timetable, and the trial could affect the timetable."

And Fran Murray, who is heavily involved in efforts to bring a

team to St. Louis, said, "Uncertainty is not a friend of expansion," meaning that the end of the trial ` whatever the result ` will clear up many doubts.

The stakes couldn't get much higher for the league in the case, McNeil vs. the NFL. A loss for the NFL could mean stiff fines and an immediate increase in player salaries. The players want free agency along the lines of baseball, where the average player makes $1 million a year and stars can draw $5 million to $7 million.

A victory for the league would further weaken the NFL Players Association and probably enhance the value of NFL franchises.

In both cases, appeals likely would drag the matter out for years.

The best thing for Baltimore would be an out-of-court settlement. The trial is expected to recess for a week this month, a time during which the sides could resume the settlement talks that seemed near an agreement just before the beginning of the trial.

The league has said that labor trouble, among other things, could derail expansion temporarily, but expansion has moved forward even as McNeil was heading to court. The sides began presenting their cases to the jury June 16 in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. The trial is expected to last until mid-August.

A similar situation was in place the last time the league expanded in 1976. Tampa, Fla., and Seattle were added at a time when the players had no collective bargaining agreement and were suing the league for free agency in Mackey vs. the NFL. A contract settlement with the union was not reached until 1977, replacing one that had expired in 1974.

A resolution adopted last year by owners called for the selection this fall of two cities to field new teams by 1994. An out was included: "unless the commissioner and the expansion committee determine that labor/ management issues constitute an impediment to the expansion timetable."

The McNeil case will have an enormous impact on how the NFL pays its players. The eight players in the suit, led by New York Jets running back Freeman McNeil, argue that current restrictions are unfair. They would prefer a free-agent system more like that of baseball, where veteran players can accept the highest offer of any team.

The eight players were protected from being taken by other teams under a system that allows a team to shield 37 of its players. The team then has the right to match another team's offer for a protected player whose contract has expired or to get compensation ` usually draft picks ` from a team that signs the player.

The owners, however, defend their system of restricted free agency as a way to give teams in smaller markets the opportunity to retain top players and provide competitive balance between the teams. Besides, the league argues, many players are earning millions of dollars a year.

Some have suggested the league is holding out expansion, and its promise of new jobs for players, as a carrot to the players association to help win a contract or at least a settlement of the McNeil case. It hasn't worked.

"They are going to have to come up with a better excuse than the players to blame for the lack of expansion," said Allen of the NFLPA, which is not technically a party to the McNeil case, but is actively supporting the players. The association decertified itself a union in a maneuver to strengthen the antitrust claim against the league.

He said the league is trying to avoid expanding because it doesn't want to cut network television revenue into smaller pieces.

If a deal is not worked out before the trial goes to jury, then there is the possibility of appeals further delaying expansion, Murray said. He predicted the league still would pick the cities but delay the start of play.

Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and a leader of the city's efforts to draw a new team, said the impact of the trial will be determined by the type and amount of judgment that results.

"If there is a result that will have an enormous financial impact on the league, it could be a reason for delay," Belgrad said.

But if the case ends up like the 1986 antitrust suit brought by the U.S. Football League against the NFL, there wouldn't be much impact, he said. The jury ruled in favor of the USFL, but awarded $1 in damages. The rival league folded.

Belgrad said the NFL would not have gone to the trouble of winnowing the field of candidate cities earlier this year if it wasn't serious about at least awarding teams soon. But there is an incentive for delaying the start of play: It would put off the time that the NFL would have to begin sharing television revenues with the new teams, he said.

But Tom Clancy, Maryland-based author and the head of one of three groups interested in owning a team in Baltimore, said the league wants to expand because it ultimately will mean more money for the owners.

Is Clancy concerned about the court case? "I'm concerned about a lot of things. But I got into this to bring football to Baltimore,"

Clancy said.

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