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.
In practice, this is likely to be meaningless. Because the teams will have a limited amount of money to spend under the salary cap, the good players will want to sign quickly. By contrast, if a player doesn't get another offer by July 15, he won't have much leverage anyway.
The only important thing was the two sides resolved the issue.
In a statement issued by his law clerk, Doty said, "Both sides seem somewhat unhappy with the result, leading me to believe that it is a good mutual settlement."
Tagliabue said, "Neither side got what it wanted to get. But that's the litmus test of a fair and balanced agreement."
Los Angeles Raiders managing partner Al Davis, who led the opposition to the earlier deal, said, "It'll be like the Russians learning the free market."
The owners spent so much time complaining about the deal that it obscured the fact the players made a major concession in agreeing to the salary cap.
Although it may turn out to be an administrative nightmare trying to figure out how to fit more than 50 players -- including those on injured reserve -- into a cap, Tony Agnone, a Baltimore-based agent, predicted the owners ultimately will like the deal. "I think the owners will be laughing five years from now," Agnone said.
Since the agreement has fallen through twice before, the players' immediate reaction was cautious.
Steve Young, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, would be one of the top free agents if he's not protected as a franchise player. He called it the "apparently, almost, tenatively final" agreement.
Young added, "Well, my apparently, almost, tentatively final comment is 'we'll wait and see.' "
The next question is whether the new agreement will clear the way for expansion, which hasn't happened in the NFL since 1976.
Herbert Belgrad, the head of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said, "It paves the way for expansion. The beautiful thing is that it's a seven-year agreement that guarantees labor stability for the forseeable future. This has been a constant thorn in our side since I've been in this since 1987."
Belgrad said he hopes to hear from the league in the next few days on a tentative expansion schedule.
"It would be very disappointing if they now have some other reason or excuse that is going to hold us up such as a TV contract [it expires after the 1993 season] or some issue that hasn't been mentioned earlier," Belgrad said.
The speculation in the league has been that the owners won't focus on expansion before the annual meeting in March and are unlikely to select the teams before mid-summer to play in 1995.
Key points of the deal
Free agency: Will come after five years of experience.
Free agency signing period: Will run from approximately March 1 to July 15 each year.
Exempt players: Each team will be able to designate one player -- a franchise player -- who can't become a free agent. His salary would have to be at the average of at least the top five players at his position.
Right of first refusal: In the first year of the contract, each team will be able to subject two players to the right of first refusal (the player's team would have the option of matching any offer the player received and keeping the player). In the second year, each team will be able to subject one player to the right of first refusal. These players' salaries would have to be at the average of at least the top 10 players at their positions.
Salary cap: If salaries reach 67 percent of NFL designated gross revenues, the cap would be triggered, and four-year players would get free agency the following year. The cap then would drop to 64, 63 and 62 percent of the gross in the succeeding years of the agreement.
Salary guarantee: Players will receive a minimum of 58 percent of the league's gross revenues.
College draft: Will be cut from 12 rounds to seven, plus one round of compensatory selections for teams that lose restricted free agents.
Rookie salaries: Total salaries of drafted rookies will be capped at their current levels -- 3.5 percent of the gross, or an average of $2 million per team, whichever is greater. Teams with higher draft choices will receive more room under the rookie salary cap in which to sign their rookies.
Damages: The NFL will pay approximately $195 million in damages and attorneys' fees to settle outstanding litigation.
Contract length: Six years, with a seventh "stub" year in which the salary cap will be lifted and free agency will be raised to six years if the two sides don't reach a new agreement.