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

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.


The spokesman said it would hurt competitive balance and quality of play if players were able to skip training camp and then sign with any team.

Quinn said the "calendar" issue already had been resolved when the players offered the owners a number of compromise scenarios. One compromise was that if a player didn't sign with another team from Feb. 1 to April 1, his original team would get his rights back until the start of the season. He would then be a free agent again if he hadn't signed. The owners want him to sit out the season before he could be free again.

The owners also want to add a seventh year to the six-year deal, although this may not turn out to be a major problem.

Quinn said: "Davis moaned about how he didn't like the deal, and then he wanted it longer."

The rest of the basic framework remains the same: free agency after five years, dropping to four once a 67 percent cap is triggered. The owners could protect one franchise player for the length of the contract and three provisional players in the first two years of the contract. Those three players would be subject to the right of first refusal.

NFL stumbling blocks


The two key sticking points in the latest breakdown in labor talks between the owners and the players:

Free-agent signing "calendar"

The owners want the free agents to be able to sign with other teams Feb. 1 to April 1, although they're open to the possibility of another short signing period before training camp. Once camp started, players wouldn't be free until the season ended if they couldn't make a deal with their original team. The players want to be free agents again if they haven't signed once the season starts, so they wouldn't be forced to sit out the season.

Length of the deal

The two sides tentatively had agreed to a six-year deal including a seventh "stub" year in which the salary cap would be lifted, and free agency would go to six years to encourage negotiations. The owners now want a seventh year plus an eighth "stub" year.