NFL, players near agreement on labor deal Contract includes cap on salaries, free agency

December 11, 1992|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

NFL owners and players have reached agreement in principl on a six-year deal that will end five years of labor strife, bring free agency to pro football and pave the way for the league's first expansion since 1976.

According to sources close to the talks, the breakthrough in the seemingly endless talks came Wednesday at a meeting in New York, where commissioner Paul Tagliabue made major concessions on free agency to strike a deal that now only needs approval by the seven members of the NFL Management Council.

The NFL has cited the uncertain labor situation as reason for postponing expansion. Baltimore and four other cities are finalists for new franchises.

In the agreement, players got free agency after five years in the league instead of the six the owners favored, and got a smaller number of exemptions to free agency.

Owners could designate one member of each roster a franchise player who can't move. His salary would have to match at least the top five at his position. In the first year of the contract, two players per team would be subject to the right of first refusal on contract offers. In the second year of the contract, one player per team would be subject to the right of first refusal.

None of the 20 players who were plaintiffs in various lawsuits against the NFL can be exempted from agency so Reggie White, the Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro defensive lineman, will be on the market on Feb. 1 if the deal is approved.

The deal calls for a salary cap at 67 percent of designated gross revenues. If salaries reach that figure in any year, the cap drops to 64 percent, but four-year players become eligible for free agency.

Each team must spend 50 percent of revenues on players salaries. Overall, teams must spend 58 percent of revenues on player salaries. The teams are virtually at that level now.

The remaining stumbling block can be hurdled Tuesday, when the seven members of the NFL Management Council are scheduled to meet to ratify the contract. The players and owners also are expected to meet Monday to fine tune the deal.

Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was the only member of the council at the bargaining session with Tagliabue. Wellington Mara, owner of the New York Giants, and Pat Bowlen, the owner of the Denver Broncos, who generally back league policy, also are expected to vote yes.

That means the deal needs just one more vote among the other four members -- the Los Angeles Raiders' Al Davis, the Washington Redskins' John Cooke, the Cincinnati Bengals' Mike Brown and the Los Angeles Rams' John Shaw -- in order to pass.

"We'll find out if Tagliabue speaks for the committee and the committee speaks for the owners," said one member of the NFL Players Association's bargaining team.

The owners gave Tagliabue and the seven-member committee power to approve a deal earlier this year so the NFL would have to avoid the process of getting 21 votes for approval.

If the contract is ratified, it will be presented to the owners at a meeting in Dallas Wednesday.

Once the contract is ratified, the owners are expected to start the expansion process again. The league recently had delayed expansion for a year because of labor problems.

Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, predicted that if the deal is ratified, the league will name two teams at its meeting in March to play in 1995.

Jim Quinn, attorney for the players, said he was optimistic that Tagliabue can deliver the votes.

"The horizon looks a lot better today," Quinn said. "Maybe it'll be a good Christmas for us. But when you're dealing with the NFL, it's not over until it's over."

Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the NFL, said: "We've made progress, but we're not there yet."

The deal is likely to run into some opposition from hard-liners who feel that Tagliabue gave away too much.

The league has yet formally to notify teams of the terms of the deal, and when the details started circulating around the league yesterday, one general manager dismissed it as union propaganda because he thought it was too one-sided.

That the draft will be cut to seven rounds also annoyed some scouts who felt teams that can find good prospects on the late rounds will be handicapped.

But Tagliabue will argue that it gets the NFL out of court, and it starts the league looking toward the future. By having a hard cap at 67 percent, the owners will know the limit on their expenses. In the NBA, teams can exceed the cap to re-sign players.

Rooney had been a staunch opponent of free agency. ("We heard a lot about Barry Bonds' contract," said one member of the players' negotiating team.) But he is expected to make a strong presentation for the deal. That is likely to have a telling effect on other owners.

The owners originally were asking for one franchise player to be exempted every year along with two other players who would be subject to first refusal. After three years, that could cover nine players.

The players countered with an offer to designate one franchise player on the team at a time. If a player signs a five-year deal, he's the franchise player for all five years. Tagliabue accepted that concept.

The deal also includes a limit on the money that can be spent on rookies -- 3.5 percent of the gross or about $2 million per team -- and it includes increased pensions and benefits.

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