Owners, union defend free-agency restrictions


League owners and the NFL Players Association, who have been battling in court for years, are now in the unusual position of being on the same side in a court action.

They are defending the settlement reached Jan. 6 against the complaints of two players who were designated as "franchise players" by their clubs -- linebacker Wilber Marshall of the Washington Redskins and defensive end Leslie O'Neal of the San Diego Chargers.

Marshall filed a memorandum with federal judge David Doty on Tuesday, asking that he be given the chance to negotiate with other clubs, and O'Neal's attorney plans to do the same today.

A franchise player must be paid among the top five players at his position or get a 20 percent raise, whichever is more, but is not allowed to negotiate with other teams. Marshall said he wants a chance to negotiate with other clubs, with the Redskins retaining the chance to match his best offer.

Doty will have a hearing April 16 to consider all the objections to the settlement, but Marshall's attorney is asking the judge to lift his franchise player designation earlier because the signing period will be six weeks old by then.

Only 10 of the 28 teams designated franchise players last week and two of them, the Philadelphia Eagles (defensive end Reggie White) and the Phoenix Cardinals (safety Tim McDonald), designated players who were plaintiffs in the lawsuits and can't be prevented from leaving. They were designated so their teams will get compensation if they leave.

There was no indication that any of the other six franchise players -- New York Giants offensive tackle Jumbo Elliott, Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive tackle Paul Gruber, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, Detroit Lions offensive tackle Lomas Brown, Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Neil Smith and Indianapolis Colts linebacker Duane Bickett -- planned to file objections.

Jim Quinn, the attorney who negotiated the settlement for the players, said objections were expected, but he didn't seem to think Doty would pay much heed.

"We believe that the overall settlement is fair and reasonable for all of the players and we're confident the judge, who's very familiar with the settlement agreement, will give it final approval," Quinn said.

Doty was well aware of the franchise player designation. On the day before the two sides reached an agreement in January, he had them in his office and strongly urged them to settle. The judge also gave preliminary approval to the deal last Friday.

Joe Browne, a league spokesman, agreed with Quinn: "The agreement serves the overall best interests of the players and the league."

But Marshall's agent, Richard Bennett, said, "I think when the judge focuses on this particular aspect of the agreement and the Draconian restraints it imposes on the franchise player, I believe it will be clear that this level of restraint is simply not permissible."

Gerald Goldman, the Washington lawyer who drew up Marshall's complaint, said, "No one should come out worse than they would have been without the litigation."

Goldman argued that Marshall is worse off because he was one of two players to change teams under the old system when he was signed by the Redskins in 1988 from the Chicago Bears. The Bears got two No. 1 draft picks as compensation.

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