As usual, NFL, players both claim victory Logic says settlement should follow decision

September 11, 1992|By .Vito Stellino | .Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

One thing is predictable when the NFL owners and players get into a legal battle.

When the verdict comes in, both sides will declare victory.

That's what happened yesterday when a federal jury in Minneapolis ruled that the NFL's Plan B free agency system violates antitrust laws.

The jury then awarded four of the eight players who sued a total of $543,000 -- tripled to $1.63 million under antitrust laws -- but didn't award the other four anything.

"We do not regard this as anything less than a huge, huge total victory," said Jeffrey Kessler, one of the players' attorneys.

Jim Quinn, the players' lead attorney, also said it means next April's draft is dead.

"There's no way they can hold a draft next year without facing lawsuits," he said.

Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, won the rhetoric award when he said, "They even broke down the Berlin Wall. The NFL is the last bastion of communism."

4 The league, naturally, looked at it another way.

One team official, who didn't want to be identified, noted that the players asked for $4 million and got $543,000. He also said it took them five years in court to win slightly more than what is now the average salary for a player.

Joe Browne, the league's director of communications, said the league now can't use Plan B, in which each team is allowed to protect 37 players. He said the NFL could try 36 or 32 players. Upshaw said the NFLPA could go to court to stop that.

And the battle goes on.

If logic prevailed, the two sides would now sit down and reach a settlement.

Tony Agnone, a Baltimore-based agent who represents several players whose contracts expire at the end of this season, including former Towson State standouts Sean Landeta and xTC Dave Meggett of the New York Giants, predicts the sides will settle.

"Now the players association goes to the owners with more arrows in their quiver," he said.

The problem is that logic rarely prevails when these two sides meet.

As one owner, who asked not to be identified, said, "It's like a divorce. The man and the woman are right. The players deserve free agency and we deserve competitive balance."

The two sides simply can't agree on how much free agency the players should get and what effect it will have on competitive balance.

The owners want one franchise player on each team exempted from free agency and two others subject to the right of first refusal. The players will give them one, but not three.

There are also differences on the length of the contract and when free agency will kick in. The players want four-year veterans to be free agents. The owners want to limit it to five- or six-year players.

Meanwhile, nobody is sure what this verdict means in the short term.

There are 15 veteran players who are unsigned, the best of whom is probably Philadelphia Eagles tight end Keith Jackson.

Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association, said the NFLPA will now try to get an injunction granting those players immediate free agency.

Then there's the question of what happens to the players whose contracts expire after this season.

"In two or three months, I'm one of those free agents," said Eric Williams, a defensive tackle for the Washington Redskins. "I don't know what it means."

In the end, though, the players think they're going to be better off than they are now.

Joe Jacoby, a veteran offensive tackle of the Redskins, is near the end of his career. He said he hopes the veterans -- and players who are retired -- get more benefits.

He thinks the young players will ultimately benefit.

"It's not for me but for the younger guys like the Matt Elliotts [the Redskins' center who was the last player picked in the 1992 NFL draft] who came in and weren't higher draft choices," Jacoby said. "They can shop their services elsewhere. That's the way it ought to be."

If players are free at the end of the year, the Redskins could b affected. Even though they recently signed Mark Rypien, Darrell Green and Jim Lachey, players such as Wilber Marshall, Gary Clark, Art Monk, Williams and Jeff Bostic are among the starters whose contracts expire at the end of the year.

Redskins general manager Charley Casserly was traveling and not available for comment last night, but Agnone said he expects clubs to make a big push to get their players signed before the end of this season.

"We'll be negotiating in the vineyards while the guys in the ivory towers are arguing about a settlement," Agnone said.

If the verdict clears the way for a settlement, it will be a positive development for the league.

Otherwise, it will just be another round in a seemingly endless fight.

NFL trial facts

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