A federal judge in Washington, Royce C. Lamberth, disagreed with other federal judges and ruled that the NFL's labor exemption from antitrust laws expired when the last union contract ended in 1987. The suit was filed by developmental squad players who received $1,000-a-week in 1989, considerably less than the league's minimum salary.
Doug Allen, the assistant executive director of the NFLPA, said the decision could lead to the developmental squad players' getting up to $80 million in damages and said it would result in the NFL's not being able to hold a collegiate draft after 1992. He also said it would stop the NFL from unilaterally imposing a wage scale on all the players.
"They've got some real problems," Allen said. "It's a big, big boost for the players."
The NFL offered a different version of the decision and called it a "preliminary ruling."
The continuing legal wrangling between the two sides could wind up having a negative impact on the league's plans to expand by two teams in 1994.
Although commissioner Paul Tagliabue has appointed a committee of six owners to evaluate the various expansion contenders that will hold its first meeting next month, the league has said it could delay expansion if "labor management issues constitute an impediment to such an expansion timetable."
Meanwhile, the two sides continue to debate in and out of the courtroom.
In a statement issued by a league spokesman, the NFL said of Lamberth's ruling: "Despite the victory dance of the NFLPA, this case is far from over. Judge Lamberth's preliminary ruling on the labor exemption is at odds with the rulings of the Minneapolis federal court, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and other federal courts. While these court cases may present interesting questions for lawyers and judges, we continue to believe that it is best for NFL players, teams and fans if these football issues are resolved at the collective bargaining table with the NFLPA or other representatives of the players."
"They're dreaming," Allen said of any suggestion that the two sides will do any collective bargaining in the future.
The NFLPA says it is no longer a union, and a federal judge in Minneapolis, David Doty, agreed in a ruling last week that could lead to free agency.
The owners are appealing that decision to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in 1989 that the NFL still has a labor exemption, which is why the NFLPA maintains it has decertified as a union.
Lamberth disagreed with that court, saying the NFL lost its labor exemption on Aug. 31, 1987, when a five-year contract with the union expired.
Allen said if the NFL appeals the ruling to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and Lamberth is upheld, two federal circuit courts will have reached opposite opinions on the labor exemption issue. He said the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the ruling by the 8th Circuit, then might decide to take the case.
Allen also said if the NFL risks an appeal and loses, players could file a suit in the D.C. Circuit Court arguing that the collegiate draft will be illegal when the 10-year draft agreed to in the 1982 collective bargaining agreement expires next year.
NFL lawyers haven't decided whether to appeal, but contend it was reasonable and legal under antitrust laws for the NFL to pay developmental squad players $1,000 a game in 1989. Allen said, "It's never legal to fix wages."
If the players get to trial and win, the 235 developmental squad players in 1989 presumably could be awarded $2,000 a week -- the difference the old and new salaries -- trebled to $6,000. For 16 weeks, that'd be $96,000 a player or a total of more than $22 million for the 235 players.