NFL nudged over labor goal line Judge's final push scores settlement

January 07, 1993|By Vito Stellino and Jon Morgan | Vito Stellino and Jon Morgan,Staff Writers The New York Times contributed to this article.

Faced with an ultimatum from federal judge David Doty, the NFL owners finally agreed to a seven-year agreement with the players yesterday that apparently will bring labor peace to pro football.

After Doty warned the owners Tuesday at a meeting in Minneapolis that he would free players without a salary cap if they didn't reach a settlement within 24 hours, the owners approved virtually the same deal they had rejected twice in the past month.

The agreement calls for the owners to get a salary cap that kicks in at 67 percent of designated gross revenues in return for the players getting free agency after five years of service.

Assuming the agreement doesn't break down again, it may clear the way for expansion.

Baltimore is one of the five expansion finalists along with Charlotte, St. Louis, Memphis and Jacksonville. But the NFL halted the process last fall, saying it needed a labor agreement before it could expand.

The agreement is technically not a collective bargaining agreement, but an out-of-court settlement of a slew of lawsuits related to restrictions on player movement, league involvement in player card revenues and back pay issues stemming from the aborted 1987 players strike.

In a joint statement yesterday by the league and its players, the parties said, "We expect that this settlement will lead to the establishment of the NFL Players Association as a labor union and an agreement on a new seven-year labor contract extending through the 1999 season."

The association, however, can only become a union if the players vote for it.

While the settlements directly affect only a handful of plaintiffs named in the suits, the provisions automatically will be extended to other players under federal rules governing class-action lawsuits.

There are still some opportunities for the deal to collapse, but far less so than the previous tentative settlements. Plaintiffs in the case will have a period of time in which to raise objections.

"There are still many unanswered questions," a league spokesman said.

The difference this time is the owners finally have approved the deal, so they expect to work out the details without another snag. Doty will have to sign off on it, but he was closely involved in the final negotiations and presumably approved its framework.

So football will launch a new age of player freedom -- coupled with the protections of a salary cap for owners. The NBA credits a similar combination with saving that league from financial ruin in the 1980s.

Player movement in the NFL likely will resemble that in basketball, rather than the free-for-all of baseball, which doesn't have a salary cap. Free agency should mean higher salaries for football players, though they probably won't approach baseball's million a year average. Football players now average half that.

"This puts us right there with baseball and basketball," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the players association. "The landscape of the NFL will never be the same. For the first time, we're the partners of the owners."

That partnership is based on the salary cap, which will run from 1994 to 1998. Implementation of the cap will be delayed for two reasons: to allow the league and its teams to become comfortable with the concept of free agency and because the contract specifies that the cap does not come into play until salaries and benefits leaguewide reach 67 percent of the NFL's gross revenues.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue first reached a tentative agreement in early December with Jim Quinn, the attorney for the players. Then the two sides announced a tentative settlement on Dec. 22. Both times, Tagliabue couldn't get a majority of the seven-man management council to approve the deal.

That was before Doty -- who presided over the trial that ended Sept. 10 when a jury ruled the NFL's Plan B free agency plan violated federal antitrust laws -- brought both sides into his chambers Tuesday.

"Judge Doty played a major role all the way," Upshaw said. "He said, 'You guys better touch hands and then shake hands.' "

The result was the seven members of the management council unanimously approved it, and the rest of the 28 owners went along when informed of Doty's ultimatum.

Doty also told the players they should give the owners a signing window, sources said.

The players' negotiators wanted the players to be free agents if they didn't sign by the end of training camp. The owners argued this would encourage players to hold out.

The result was that the owners gave the players a long salary window from "approximately" (the word approximately in the joint release indicates it could be changed again) March 1 to July 15. A player who doesn't sign by July 15 reverts to his old team if he's offered a 10 percent raise.

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