Upcoming recess might be the break NFL is looking for Speculation growing on settlement of suit

July 08, 1992|By Fred Mitchell | Fred Mitchell,Chicago Tribune

Neither management nor the Players Association appears to be gaining significant ground in the ongoing NFL antitrust trial in Minneapolis, giving rise to speculation the two sides soon may settle out of court and establish a more equitable form of free agency.

There is a scheduled break in the legal proceedings between the end of this week and July 27, providing a sensible opportunity for reconciliation and an end to the damaging rhetoric and exorbitant attorney fees.

Salaries of NFL coaches and owners were made public yesterday during another day of show-and-tell by legal representatives.

"I think management is entitled to pay themselves what they think is fair, and to run the team the way they see fit, just as long as players are fairly compensated," said player agent Leigh Steinberg, who testified on behalf of the NFL Players Association last week.

"Owners need to make profit. They own it as a private business. They are entitled to make whatever they want. The more they make, the better -- as long as the players have freedom."

Owners of NFL teams paid themselves between $50 million and $60 million in salaries from 1987-90, money that could be added to the profit figures for each club, according to NFLPA testimony.

One of the ramifications of the antitrust trial that began June 15 has been the slow progress in the signing of draft picks, as well as veterans.

"I think the veterans' signings are definitely being affected by the trial," said Ted Phillips, Chicago Bears finance director. "It seems clear from what has been said by both sides that whatever happens, there will be some form of free agency."

NFL owners have contended that a more liberal free agent process -- such as what is in effect in baseball or the NBA -- would drive up salaries and ultimately disrupt the league's competitive balance.

"It is crystal clear that free agency will come to football, and in the very near future. And it will bring a healthier National Football League," said Steinberg, who pointed out that the average career of an NFL player lasts only 3.1 years.

Steinberg also does not foresee a mad exodus from smaller markets.

"The argument that free agents would flood to big cities with warm weather or huge population bases doesn't follow," he said. "We just got through putting together a television show for [Raiders defensive end] Howie Long. That is the only television show in Los Angeles for any Raider or Ram. And there are no radio shows."

Stanford economics professor Roger Noll, who has been the players' star witness thus far, revealed ownership salaries ranging from nothing to $7.5 million for Philadelphia Eagles boss Norman Braman.

A large number of figures were presented by the players yesterday after NFL attorneys accused Noll of using the numbers selectively.

The owners could choose to take money from their teams in profits or salaries, Noll told the jury. "This is a matter of discretion on the part of the owners how to take returns from their ownership," Noll said.

The players are attempting to show that the league is more profitable than its financial statements suggest.

Among the highlights of the salaries not previously made public: the president of the New Orleans Saints, who was unnamed in the document, drew a $1.15 million salary in 1990.

The Paul Brown family, owners of the Cincinnati Bengals, paid themselves more than $1 million for three of the four years and about $900,000 the fourth year. Denver owner Patrick Bowlen, who did not draw a salary from 1987-89, paid himself $742,000 in 1990.

In Minnesota, majority owner Max Winter paid himself between $400,000 and $412,000 each year, while minority owner Mike Lynn -- who was president, general manager and chief executive officer -- drew salaries of between $824,000 and $902,000.

Some team employees were well-paid, as well. Tex Schramm, then-president of the Dallas Cowboys, drew a $1.6 million salary in 1989. Kansas City Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson was paid more than $1 million in 1990, and owner Lamar Hunt paid himself only $12,000 in 1987. Other owners reported no salaries, including San Francisco and Tampa Bay.

In Indianapolis, owner Robert Irsay took out a $13 million loan from the team, according to Noll's testimony.

Noll also suggested that eight to 10 cities in the United States could profitably support an NFL team, including San Antonio, Memphis and Sacramento. When asked why the cities don't have teams, Noll said the owners oppose expansion because of their monopoly position.

An analysis of NFL finances shows that during the 1990 season, only two of the seven most profitable teams made the playoffs and none of the six division winners were in that group.

The financial statements showed a direct correlation between profits and player costs.

The teams that spent the least on players -- seven teams that averaged $20.9 million in player costs -- made the most money, an average of almost $1.7 million per team. Those teams won 55 games and lost 57 during the season, a winning percentage of .491.

Teams that spent the most on players also were losers, although two division winners were included in that group. Their average for player costs was $26 million, but their combined record was just 45-66, a percentage of .406.

The winners were in the middle.

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