The NFL Players Association scored its biggest legal victory of a 17-year fight for free agency yesterday, when a federal judge in Minneapolis ruled that four holdouts are free to sign with any team.
In a 20-page order, Judge David Doty ruled in Minneapolis that the four players -- Keith Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles, Webster Slaughter of the Cleveland Browns, Garin Veris of the New England Patriots and D.J. Dozier of the Detroit Lions -- can't be restricted by the league's Plan B system.
A jury ruled on Sept. 10 that the Plan B system violates antitrust laws, which prompted 10 unsigned players to file for immediate free agency. Six of them then were released or traded, leaving four in the case.
Doug Allen, vice president of the NFLPA, said the ruling was "an absolute watershed for NFL players."
Doty wrote that waiting for appeals on the Plan B ruling before setting the players free would cause the players "irreparable injury each week that they remain restricted. The existence of irreparable injury is underscored by the undisputed brevity and precariousness of the players' careers in professional sports, particularly in the NFL."
It was the first time that NFL players have been freed by a court ruling since Dec. 29, 1975, when a federal court in Minneapolis ruled in the Mackey case -- named for former Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey -- that the Rozelle rule violated antitrust laws.
After that ruling, 18 players signed with new teams, including John Riggins, who went from the New York Jets to the Washington Redskins. Under the Rozelle rule, former commissioner Pete Rozelle would decide compensation if a player signed with a new team.
The players bargained away that brief period of free agency in 1977, when they signed a contract that included a fixed compensation system. In 1987, after the players staged an unsuccessful strike that ended without an agreement, the owners instituted Plan B, in which each team could protect 37 players while the rest were granted free agency. The 10 players in the case had been protected by their teams.
When the jury threw out Plan B two weeks ago, commissioner Paul Tagliabue called it a split verdict because the jury said that the NFL's compensation system -- under which the team signing a free agent must give up draft picks to his former team -- contributes to competitive balance.
But the league didn't claim victory this time, saying the ruling was "incorrect and premature" and "may be damaging to the four clubs if they suffer the loss of any of the players during the current system."
Only three of them -- Jackson, Veris and Slaughter -- are likely to be pursued. Dozier spent the summer playing minor-league baseball.
The owners said the ruling "affects only these four players," while the players predicted that all of the players whose contracts expire at the end of this season will become free agents. The Eagles' Reggie White already has filed a class-action suit for those players. The suit will be heard Dec. 21.
Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer for the players, said: "We believe that this decision is a strong indication that all of the players whose contracts expire are going to be set free."
The owners, though, are expected to try coming up with a new system that will pass legal muster. George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, said: "After every court ruling, the union always hails it like the sinking of the Bismarck."
It's also uncertain how much bidding there will be for the players.
Jackson is considered the prize of the group, but Young virtually took the Giants out of the bidding, saying he drafted tight ends on the first and third rounds this year.
"I think you know my modus operandi. We don't tend to get excited about other people's players, and it'll be the fifth week of the season by the time we tee it up again," Young said.
Harry Gamble, Eagles general manager, said his team hasn't given up on signing Jackson. One of the sticking points is that he wants a guaranteed contract.
Doty will have another hearing in the case Tuesday, when he likely will extend his ruling, but Jackson's agent, Gary Wichard, said he hopes to have Jackson signed by then.
General manager Charley Casserly of the Washington Redskins wasn't available for comment last night, but a team source indicated they were unlikely to go after Jackson. The Redskins would have to pay him more than Art Monk and Gary Clark, making them harder to sign when their contracts expire at the end of this year.
The Redskins, though, are bringing in defensive tackle Joe Phillips, one of the original 10 players who was released by the San Diego Chargers, for a workout today. Phillips, who made $535,000 last year, wants a two-year deal for $1.5 million. He worked out with the Atlanta Falcons yesterday.