NFL's two sides break meeting without a deal Players suggest it's time for court

December 17, 1992|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

DALLAS -- Pro football owners left here yesterday without a hoped-for labor agreement, but said they were close and getting closer to a deal with their players.

The players, however, suggested it may be time to stop talking and resume slugging it out in court.

The owners said they were prepared for that also, and, to prove the point, announced preparations to unilaterally impose a plan governing the movement of players between teams.

For Baltimore, a delay in a negotiated settlement would appear to further delay the league's plan to expand. Baltimore is among five cities hoping to win one of two expansion franchises.

The day capped a confusing week where hopes for an end to football's five years of labor rancor seemed tantalizingly close.

"We're hopeful that something will come through. We're going to keep working to bridge the differences," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said.

Just how significant those differences are may determine whether there will be any bridge-building. The players say they are willing to discuss minor details, but that the major points of an agreement already were hammered out with owner representatives.

That the owners did not ratify the agreement suggests that NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue could not sell it to his ownership committee, said Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association.

"I think the deal has been rejected. There is no time to reinvent the wheel," Allen said.

But Tagliabue said there never was a deal and he would contact the players' attorney today to suggest the two sides jointly ask a federal judge to delay ruling on the players' lawsuits while negotiations are resumed.

But players' attorney James Quinn said he was inclined to let U.S. District Judge David Doty rule on the suits and work from there.

Doty ruled in favor of the players earlier this year in a major anti-trust claim. But he has not issued a ruling implementing his decision and has instead encouraged the two sides to work out their differences at the bargaining table.

Now that there's a stalemate, Doty could decide to step back into the case.

The proposed agreement reached last week would settle about a half-dozen suits brought by the players for limited free agency, fewer exemptions sought by owners for free agency, and a $200 million payment to the players in various settlements. The owners would get a salary cap and the right to restrict some players from changing teams.

"My sense is that we have talked this thing till we are blue in the face," Quinn said. "We've compromised and we've compromised. There is really no more room on the key points.

"I'm not closing the door to anything. But at this point we're beyond having another series of lengthy negotiations," Quinn said.

Further legal wrestling could delay expansion for years.

"I recognize that it's not easy to resolve all the issues and the fact that the two parties are talking and have reached agreement on many of the issues is positive," said Herb Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and head of the city's NFL expansion efforts.

The latest chapter in the bizarre saga of NFL labor relations -- in which the employer is trying to convince its workers to unionize -- began a week ago Monday when Tagliabue told reporters that a framework for an agreement had been worked out.

Player representatives hotly denied that a deal had been struck. Two days later, after further negotiations, the players said an agreement was at hand -- and Tagliabue denied it.

Finally, the two sides flew here Tuesday for what was billed as a final negotiating session. The players emerged saying the deal, minus a few mechanical details, was in place and only needed the ratification of the owners' negotiating committee.

That seven-man committee met Tuesday and announced several "major issues" remained unresolved. Yesterday, representatives of all 28 teams met for eight hours, and, according to participants, encouraged its committee to strike a deal.

The seven-man committee was badly divided on the proposed agreement, according to NFL officials. But a consensus emerged from the full ownership body to strike a deal, officials said.

"The structure of a deal, I think, is in fair shape, but some of the details need to be worked out," Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell said.

"The rank-and-file owners want a collective bargaining agreement," Modell said.

One NFL official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: "We're closer than we have ever been before. We're inches apart on just a few points."

For example, the proposed agreement called for a six-year term with an optional seventh year in which some provisions change. The owners want the deal to last a year longer, the official said.

League spokesman Joe Browne said the owners also discussed yesterday a plan for player movement they would submit to Judge Doty if no agreement is reached. The plan would replace the so-called "Plan B" system that was found to unfairly restrict player movement between teams and violate anti-trust law.

Details of the so-called "Plan C" were not released.

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