Jury sent message of compromise, but who's listening?

PRO FOOTBALL

September 13, 1992|By VITO STELLINO

Wendy McClelland is going to watch some football today.

"I'm going to be a fan now, now that I know some of the players," the 35-year-old Minneapolis mother of four, who works part-time in a jewelry store, said last week.

McClelland is one of the eight women on the jury who ruled the NFL's Plan B free agency system violates the antitrust laws.

"I believe they should have more freedom," she said. "I tried to compare it to another job. I know there have to be some restrictions, but they're still human beings."

Like most of the other jurors, McClelland wasn't a football fan before this trial started.

But she and the other jurors didn't need to be fans to send a common-sense message to both sides with the verdict: it's time to compromise and reach a settlement.

The compromise verdict, which gave each side a chance to claim victory, showed that it's now time for some statesmanship on both sides.

It's been obvious for a long time that the players were never going to settle before they got a verdict in their favor. They needed it for their self-respect.

The wounds of this bitter dispute were too deep. The NFL made the mistake during the 1987 strike of running up the score. Not only did they crush the union with the replacement games, but they also forced the players to miss one more game after they had surrendered because they had missed an artificial deadline.

The owners forgot the players weren't air traffic controllers. In the end, the owners needed them back.

The players came back, but they wanted their chance to even the score. Out of that strike, the owners instituted Plan B. Proving Plan B was illegal became a symbol to the union. The jury finally gave it that symbol when it threw out Plan B.

But the jury still let the owners have some restrictions. The idea that you must restrict players in pro sports is ingrained in the American psyche. Forget the fact that baseball free agency has shown that the big market teams don't dominate the sport. The owners were able to convince even a jury of non-sports fans that they need restrictions.

The players now have to wonder whether to continue this fight or trade cash for some restrictions.

The owners were offering the eight players $20 million as part of a settlement. They got $1.6 million from the jurors. Not exactly a great trade-off.

Then there are jobs. The players should be negotiating for four expansion teams. The owners are holding expansion hostage and jobs are being lost.

Even Wilber Marshall of the Washington Redskins, one of the two players to move under the current system, is touting a deal.

"It's gone on too long," he said. "Eventually, it's going to come back and hurt one side or the other."

Unfortunately, right after the verdict, both sides returned to sniping

at each other. The players said they'd no longer accept a salary cap and the owners said their offer was off the table.

Meanwhile, Baltimore has a rooting interest in all this because a deal means expansion.

It's not realistic to expect expansion teams on the field by 1994. Maybe 1995 is a possibility -- if the two sides get the message the jury sent.

Whither the Patriots?

The prospect of a long delay in expansion started the immediate speculation that James Busch Orthwein, who bought the New England Patriots on an interim basis, will move them to St. Louis.

Without a new stadium, Orthwein is going to be losing millions of dollars every year in New England.

Since the Boston area is showing no signs of coming up with a stadium, he's not likely to stay in New England indefinitely waiting for expansion.

They said it

Steve McMichael of the Chicago Bears on trying to tackle Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions: "I know how Bugs Bunny feels trying to catch the Tazmanian Devil."

Timm Rosenbach of the Phoenix Cardinals, who was strapped to a stretcher and examined after being knocked out: "They were trucking me around in that thing like I was a relish tray."

Tom Rathman of the San Francisco 49ers, who's usually a blocking back, but caught three touchdown passes against the New York Giants: "They found me. They can take my picture off the milk carton."

Getting even

When coach Bill Belichick of the Cleveland Browns put Reggie Langhorne on Plan B, he called him, "the most selfish player I ever coached."

Langhorne signed with Indianapolis and caught a 26-yard touchdown pass that sealed the Colts' 14-3 victory over the Browns in the opener.

Langhorne flipped the ball in the direction of the Browns bench after scoring, but wouldn't knock Belichick after the game.

"If you'd caught me after the touchdown and heard the things I was saying to myself, you might have gotten a good comment," he said.

Out of the locker room

On Oct. 1, 1990, Sam Wyche, who was then coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, barred a woman reporter from his locker room in the Seattle Kingdome shortly after the Lisa Olson incident took place in New England.

Wyche was fined by the league and turned the incident into a crusade, claiming women had no place in the locker room.

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