Court refuses to hear owners' appeal NFL free-agency trial set for Feb. 17


Four years, four months, two days and two lawsuits after it started its legal fight for free agency, the NFL Players Association will get its day in court Feb. 17.

The jury trial to determine whether the NFL's restrictions on player movements violate the antitrust laws will be held in Minneapolis.

The NFLPA finally won that long-awaited court date yesterday after the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals declined to hear an appeal by the owners of federal Judge David Doty's ruling on May 24 that the NFLPA is no longer a union.

The NFLPA first filed its lawsuit for free agency on Oct. 15, 1987, after it ended a 24-day strike without getting a contract.

It lost its first lawsuit without ever getting to trial when the 8th Circuit Court ruled the NFL had a labor exemption for its free agency restrictions and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

The NFLPA then tried a new strategy, announcing in November of 1989 that it was no longer a union. It then supported a second suit filed by eight players and named for Freeman McNeil, a running back for the New York Jets.

The NFL tried to block that suit by arguing the NFLPA was still a union. Judge Doty rejected that argument and the appeallate court declined to hear the appeal so the NFL will not be allowed to argue that point at the trial. They also can't argue they have a labor exemption.

"We will now definitely get to have our trial and the league will not be able to assert any labor defense so they will stand naked," said Jeffrey Kessler, one of the New York lawyers for the NFLPA.

Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFLPA, said: "We've been chomping at the bit for the trial. They have a big target painted on their chest and the only protection they had was this shield they were holding up in front of themselves."

The shield was the labor exemption and the NFL has now lost that.

The NFL will argue its restrictions are reasonable and that it has more free agency than any other league because teams protect 37 players under Plan B and the rest are free to move. A total of 229, 184 and 139 have moved the last three years.

"We continue to believe our system is reasonable, that it serves the best interests of professional football and that it will be upheld in trial," the league said in a prepared statement.

Kessler said he's as confident as he ever has been going into a trial.

"Try to ask any of the NFL owners why if 37 protected players are OK, why wouldn't 30 be OK? Why wouldn't 25 be OK? It's impossible to justify this particular system," Kessler said.

It's a coincidence that the trial will start in Minneapolis less than a month after the Super Bowl is played there on Jan. 26.

This will be the Super Bowl of trials for the NFL because it's likely to determine the future of pro football in the 21st century. If the owners win, they will be able to continue to restrict player movement and keep salaries down.

If the players win, football players likely will be able to move the way baseball and basketball players can, and salaries will escalate.

"The results could be very hurtful to the NFL," said Gary Roberts, dean of the Tulane University law school who is known as an expert in antitrust law.

Roberts said it was a "psychological" boost for the NFLPA because it's the third straight week that they've won a favorable court ruling.

Even if the owners lose, they can appeal and argue on appeal that the NFLPA is still a union, but a jury verdict might well stand.

The fact that the NFL will be in the midst of a major antitrust trial next February could delay the expansion timetable. The NFL has said that its plan to name two teams in the fall of 1992 for the 1994 season could be delayed if labor-management issues are an impediment.

But Herbert Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said he believes the NFL is now committed to expand. He noted that baseball announced a week ago that it was delaying the naming of two teams and then named them a few days later after the delay caused negative reaction.

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