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NFL Is in Violation of Antitrust Laws, Jury Decides

By Mike Freeman
The Washington Post

MINNEAPOLIS

A federal court jury Thursday unanimously decided that the National Football League's Plan B free agency system is illegal, that it substantially harms the effect on competition for players' services and thus violates antitrust laws.

But the decision leaves the league free to come up with a different, yet still restricted plan.

The jury's ruling means that, in effect, the Plan B system of protecting 37 players on a team is dead. Frank Rothman, lawyer for the NFL, said the league will appeal the decision. The players had argued that Plan B illegally limited their ability to earn top salaries when compared to salaries earned by players in other professional sports, such as baseball, with less restricted free agency.

The players prevailed on three of four questions put to the jury. The jurors ruled that Plan B had a "harmful effect" on competition, that Plan B was too restrictive, and that the players suffered economic injury as a result.

The owners prevailed on the question of how much Plan B contributed to competitive balance in the NFL.

This means the owners may be able to come up with other rules that are less restrictive.

Jim Quinn, an attorney for the players, said "This is a huge victory." NFL vice president for communications Joe Browne said the ruling meant only that Plan B was now "too restrictive."

The jurors had no comment.

Eight players filed the lawsuit but just four were awarded damages that totaled $540,000. That amount is automatically tripled to $1.63 million under antitrust laws. Players receiving money were Mark Collins ($178,000), Frank Minnifield ($50,000), Dave Richards ($240,000), and Lee Rouson ($75,000). The namesake in the suit, New York Jets running back Freeman McNeil, wasn't awarded damages. Neither was Green Bay quarterback Don Majkowski, Phoenix defensive back Tim McDonald, and former Los Angeles Raiders defensive lineman Niko Noga. McNeil, Majkowski, and McDonald had the largest salaries of the eight plaintiffs.

All eight were free agents in 1990 but were protected under Plan B.

Plan B, which began in February 1989, allows each team to retain limited rights to 37 players each season. A protected player is unable to s sign with other teams without giving his old team the first chance to sign him or forcing his new club to compensate his old club if he goes elsewhere.

The ruling, at least for now, appears to suggest that NFL players have taken one more step toward some sort of free agency system.

The players now believe that they can either try to stop the league from coming up with another free agent plan or they can begin bargaining. If bargaining does not result in a settlement, federal Judge David Doty, who presided over the case, could institute what he feels is a legal free agency system. Rothman said the league will attempt to come up with a "Plan C." He suggested that instead of protecting 37 players, like Plan B did, they may try to protect "29 or maybe 30."

"We will put rules in place," he said. "Okay, so we have a job to do, to figure out what isn't restrictive. But rules there will be."

Rothman said an appeal would be based on, among other things, the fact that the defendants feel the National Football League Players Association never actually decertified as a union.

Attorneys for the players say they will fight any new system the league attempts to put in place by filing for an injunction or bringing another lawsuit to challenge whatever the NFL does next.

Conceivably the verdict means that if a player's contract is up next year that player could file for an injunction to keep the NFL from taking any action against him. Then, the lawyers for the players say, he would be a free agent.

There are currently 15 unsigned veterans, such as Philadelphia Eagles tight end Keith Jackson, who could file an injunction and become free agents

"Every player is entitled to an injunction against the system, whatever system they put in place," said NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw. "Plan C is not up to the NFL anymore."

Lawyers for the players added they plan to challenge the validity of the NFL draft, which they think is excessive and unnecessary. "The draft," said Upshaw, "is dead." The players lawyers said the verdict was a "great victory for the players" and that it had both immediate and long term impacts for professional football and could hurt the pocket books of the owners. Quinn said that since there have been over 1,000 players under the Plan B system, which began in 1989, that the verdict really means the league is liable for over $200 million in damages. The NFL disputes this statement.

"There could be different class action suits, or several class action suits, or even just bunches of players could file lawsuits," said Quinn. He added that the NFL is also responsible for the plaintiff's legal fees, which Quinn said was about $10 million.