NFL parties can't agree, so here comes the judge

January 01, 1993|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

The tangled labor talks between the NFL owners and players have broken down again, and now federal Judge David Doty will make the next move in the five-year battle.

"I've been with these cases since 1987, and nothing is either expected or surprises me about what happens with them," said Doty, the U.S. district judge who presided at the trial last summer at which limited Plan B free agency was thrown out by a jury. "We'll just go ahead and do what we were planning to do, at any rate."

Before issuing a ruling, Doty said he plans to have a hearing early next week -- probably Tuesday -- when he'll get an update on the latest problem.

He then could issue a decision on free agency or urge the two sides to try again to settle the dispute.

What the owners risk in going back to court is that if Doty frees the players, the owners won't have a salary cap to limit spending. If Doty does free the players, the owners are expected to appeal to get an injunction to stop it from being implemented.

One way or the other -- by a settlement or a judge's decision -- the league must have some kind of free agency system in place by Feb. 1 when the contracts expire.

Jim Quinn, the lawyer for the players, announced late Tuesday night that the tentative agreement announced on Dec. 22 had fallen apart after owners told him their position was, "the deal was off."

A spokesman for the NFL responded yesterday by saying the owners' Management Council committee was surprised by the hTC players announcement and blamed the players for the breakdown "by refusing any meaningful compromise on the major unsolved issues."

The latest breakdown doesn't involve any of the well-publicized issues such as the salary cap or the number of exemptions to free agency. Instead, the sticking points are the length of the "calendar" for the signing period and the length of the overall contract.

If the courtroom war resumes, it could last years and be another setback in Baltimore's nine-year quest to get an expansion team to replace the Colts, who moved to Indianapolis on March 28, 1984.

The league -- which originally had announced a plan to name two expansion teams this past fall, to begin play in 1994 -- has delayed the timetable for at least a year or until it gets some labor stability.

Baltimore is considered one of the five finalists with St. Louis, Charlotte, Memphis and Jacksonville.

Herbert Belgrad, the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said he hopes the latest setback doesn't derail the chances for a settlement.

Belgrad, who received a call from the league yesterday to update him on the latest problem, said: "I make my living by labor negotiations. They're often protracted and have their ups and downs. I don't think this means the end of negotiations."

The basic problem is that commissioner Paul Tagliabue still can't sell the deal he struck with Quinn to a majority of the seven-man committee. The committee consists of Los Angeles Raiders managing general partner Al Davis; Los Angeles Rams vice president John Shaw; Cincinnati Bengals president Mike Brown; Washington Redskins vice president John Kent Cooke; Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney; Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen; and New York Giants co-owner Wellington Mara.

Davis, Shaw, Cooke and Brown are opposed to the deal.

The result was a return to the angry rhetoric that has been a trademark of these talks since Oct. 15, 1987, when the players ended an unsuccessful three-week strike and went to court to seek free agency.

Although a major official reason for the breakdown is the length ++ of the so-called "calendar" for the free agency signing period, Quinn said: "This isn't a calendar issue. This is a control issue."

Quinn said the hard-liners among the owners are using the calendar issue to block the deal because they're opposed to free agency. However, a league spokesman insisted the committee was united on this issue.

Quinn called the owners' position "absurd, ridiculous and insane" and said: "They just can't get over this hump that the guys are really going to be free. They can't let the cattle be free."

That was a reference to a statement made in September 1987 by Gene Upshaw, the head of the NFLPA, when the owners told him at a meeting in Philadelphia that they would "never" allow the players to have free agency. "They think they're ranchers and we're the cattle, and they think they can always get more cattle," Upshaw said at the time.

Doug Allen, the assistant executive director of the NFLPA, said: "We had an agreement and they backed out of the deal."

Allen suggested the owners have been stalling in the talks "to avoid their day of judgment in court as long as possible."

A spokesman for the league responded by saying the calendar issue is important because the owners want the players to be free to sign with other teams only during a 60-day period from Feb. 1 to April 1, which is the same as the window in the current Plan B signing system.

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