If one thing is clear, it's not expansion

MIKE LITTWIN

September 11, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

Well, the verdict is finally in on the NFL antitrust trial from Minneapolis, and here's what we know:

* The players said they won.

* The owners said they won.

* The lawyers on both sides drove away in expensive foreign cars. Clearly, they won.

Here's what we don't know:

* Everything else.

What we especially don't know is what this means to NFL expansion, which is, of course, all anyone in this town cares about.

The actual trial was just another in a series of labor battles in what is basically a modern-day Hundred Years War, except with more bloodshed. Whichever side did lose -- I think the NFL owners lost, but probably by no more than a field goal -- is going to appeal, meaning, of course, more money for the lawyers.

Meanwhile, there are sure to be injunctions and writs and safety blitzes and other legal mumbo jumbo.

With every injunction and every appeal, expansion will probably be pushed that much farther back. You can almost certainly forget 1994, the original target date for expansion, although that would be a good time for another meaningless exhibition game, don't you think? I mean, if Memorial Stadium is still standing. If the Baltimore Colt Marching Band is still marching.

The upshot is that ol' No. 19, Johnny U., can go to Spartanburg, S.C., or Laramie, Wyo., for that matter, for all the expansion rallies he can stand, and it won't mean a thing. The NFL owners, who don't really want to expand anyway, are not going to rush to make any bold moves when the future of the league, and perhaps the western world, is at stake.

Before we can figure out what might happen, let's try to figure out what did happen.

Back in 1990, eight players took the NFL to federal court to try to upset the Plan B free-agent system, which is hardly any kind of free-agent system at all. Under Plan B, eight players on a 45-man roster can become unrestricted free agents. Nobody else gets to move without restrictions so severe that only two players have ever overcome them. If this doesn't seem unfair to you, then maybe you should think of becoming an NFL ballclub owner yourself.

The jury ruled that it was unfair, violating antitrust laws, gave half the eight players some money and said Plan B had to go. But the jury also said the NFL didn't have to agree to unrestricted free agency, meaning that perhaps the league could institute another plan. Or perhaps the judge would make a ruling.

Is that clear enough?

Of course not.

That's why an NFL spokesman said the league can simply create a slightly modified Plan B, say Plan C, and nobody knows right now if the NFL can do that or not.

The head of the former players union said if the NFL went from Plan B to Plan C, the players would go back to court (taking years, delaying expansion, trying the patience of even Herb Belgrad).

The owners have said they will appeal anyway (see: above).

Or, now hold your breath, there is a good-case (the best-case is out the window) scenario.

Call me crazy, but there's a slight chance the two sides would understand that the only way to get this thing resolved is to come up with a settlement that would have to include some kind of a free agency, probably after four or five years of play and maybe with the addition of an NBA-like salary cap.

That would be perfect -- almost. It would be perfect except that, with free agency, salaries would go up. And what if the owners decided that if salaries were to rise precipitously that they could no longer afford expansion? That would give them the perfect excuse not to expand in the near future.

NFL officials had said if they had won the case they would have definitely expanded, making the announcement in October, choosing two teams from the five remaining contenders. That doesn't seem likely now. In fact, it's only slightly less unlikely than an unbeaten Redskins season.

The league will hold a meeting Thursday in Dallas to discuss the verdict and its ramifications. Expansion probably will come up, but not first and not second, either.

You're worried about it. So are people in Charlotte, N.C., and St. Louis. So is Johnny Unitas.

The NFL has other problems. If we've learned anything over the years, it's that the NFL, whenever expansion comes up, always has other problems.

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