NFL, players talking, but progress is open to interpretation

December 09, 1992|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

In the tea-leaf-reading world that NFL expansion has become, there are some tantalizing suggestions that the wait may be near an end.

Then again, maybe not.

This much is known: The NFL and its players are talking. They are even talking about a collective bargaining agreement, something that has become a Holy Grail for cities such as Baltimore that want to attract expansion franchises.

The league has said that it will need some labor accommodation before it can award two expansion teams, maybe during 1993 in time for 1995 play. Baltimore is competing against St. Louis, Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla.

Any talks between the sides -- which previously had confined their discussions to cross-examinations -- can only help. This much even the warring parties agree with.

But, beyond that, there is disagreement.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue told reporters on Monday: "We're at a critical point right now. . . . We have a preliminary agreement that is a framework for what we want."

But an official with the NFL Players Association, which disputes Tagliabue's optimistic assessment, said the commissioner called yesterday and apologized.

An NFL spokesman then said the commissioner was misinterpreted by reporters.

"There is no agreement in principle at this time. There is preliminary agreement on a framework," said the spokesman, Greg Aiello.

Aiello said the league delivered to the players last week a proposal containing elements that the sides have agreed could form the framework of an agreement: more liberal free agency for players, a player-draft mechanism and an NBA-style salary cap that limits total player salaries to a percentage of team revenues.

"We hope to know in the next 10 to 12 days whether a house goes up on this foundation," Aiello said.

But Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the players association, said Tagliabue has "mischaracterized" the talks and violated a signed confidentiality agreement.

"I think it is unproductive and provocative and unnecessary to describe something in inaccurate terms," Allen said.

"The discussions have been productive, but the fact that you've covered half the distance between you does not mean that you are getting close," Allen said.

Last week's document from the league was not a contract proposal, but rather a written outline of league positions on various issues, he said. The players were to respond in writing yesterday or early today, Allen said.

The exchange of written proposals represents an evolution of the mechanics of the talks, but not the substance, he said. He noted that the talks still technically are aimed at settling anti-trust lawsuits by players, not at writing a collective bargaining agreement.

The sides have not had a contract since 1987, and the players association since has decertified itself as a union in a legal maneuver, but the league hopes the negotiations will lead to a contract.

Jim Quinn, chief negotiator for the players, acknowledged some progress, but denied anything is imminent. An agreement in 10 to 12 days is unlikely, he said.

"We've inched closer together on a number of issues, but, at this point, it's being overly optimistic to say we're near agreement," Quinn.

There is no framework for an agreement, he said.

The players have told the league that some type of salary cap may be acceptable, if coupled with free agency and other protections, he said. But the sides have not agreed on details.

He speculated that Tagliabue's optimistic comments may have been designed to put pressure on his own bargaining committee.

An official at the players association, speaking on the condition of anonymity, suggested a darker motive: The owners want U.S. District Judge David Doty to think a deal is near so he further will delay a key ruling.

The Minneapolis-based judge is overdue on issuing a decision affecting free agency for about 600 players.

If the ruling goes with the players, it could enhance the freedom individual players have to negotiate higher salaries from owners.

It also would enhance the leverage of the players in negotiations, giving them reason to try to dampen optimism about the progress of the talks.

The judge, who has made no secret of his desire to see the issue settled across a bargaining table, was expected to rule before Thanksgiving.

An employee in the judge's office said yesterday: "The only official word out of here is that an order is forthcoming."

Tony Agnone, a Baltimore-based player agent, said he has detected signs in recent weeks from players and teams that the talks have picked up momentum.

"My feeling is that Tagliabue probably jumped the gun, but that it really is pretty close," Agnone said.

Pepper Rodgers, working on behalf of Memphis, Tenn., in its effort to get a expansion team, said he also has detected some optimism from league officials and team owners.

"I hope there is something to this. There is always posturing, but don't you think there comes a time when they would want to reach agreement?" Rodgers said.

Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herbert J. Belgrad said: "Certainly we're very hopeful for selfish reasons that the players association and owners are nearing agreement."

He warns, however, that there have been signs in the past of an imminent agreement.

"I don't read signs anymore," Belgrad said.

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