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Jury rules in favor of NFL players: 'Plan B is dead'

By
DON JACOBSON

MINNEAPOLIS -- NFL players won a landmark battle with management Thursday when a jury ruled the league violated antitrust laws by placing restrictions on free agents.

The jury of eight women found the NFL guilty of violating antitrust laws in a case challenging the legality of the leagues' Plan B system for restricting veteran players. After 14 hours of deliberation over two days, the jury decided Plan B was illegal, and has 'a significant harmful effect on competition in the market for players in the NFL.'

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Former NFL Players Association president Gene Upshaw hailed the verdict as a landmark decision and said that all players in the NFL who were restricted in 1990 and 1991 are now free to sue the league for damages.

'Plan B is dead,' Upshaw said. 'The draft is the next thing we're going after. We'll sue again.'

The jurors said Plan B did help competitive balance in the NFL, but it violated the law because it was too restrictive, more than was necessary to maintain the competitive balance.

Under Plan B, teams could protect 37 players and leave the rest on its roster free to sign with other teams without compensation. That rule meant that star players, such as quarterback Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins and running back Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions, would most likely never qualify for free agency in their careers.

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The jurors awarded monetary damages to some of the eight suing plaintiffs but none to others. Players awarded damages were cornerback Mark Collins of the New York Giants ($178,000), guard Dave Richards of San Diego ($240,000), former Giants' running back Lee Rouson ($75,000) and cornerback Frank Minniefield of Cleveland ($50,000).

No damages were awarded to quarterback Don Majkowski of Green Bay, running back Freeman McNeil of the New York Jets, former Detroit Lions linebacker Niko Noga and cornerback Tim McDonald of Phoenix.

Under antitrust laws these damages are tripled, so each player will receive three times the awarded amount.

NFL attorney Frank Rothman said the league would appeal the decision and that the ruling is not a complete disaster for the NFL. He pointed out that the jury maintained that Plan B helped preserve the competitive balance in the NFL, therefore he said a similar, less restrictive plan would probably be legal.

'The jury said that 37 is too much, okay, so we'll protect 35 or 36. There's another system than can be framed,' Rothman said. 'There's no question that we'll be moving to the appellate court.'

He called the decision, 'a mixed bag that hasn't solved anything. But the jury said you can have rules. Rest assured there will be another set of rules.'

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Players' spokesman Doug Allen disputed some of Rothman's conclusions about what the verdict meant. 'They (jury) didn't say you could make a new system,' Allen said. 'They said all eight plaintiffs suffered economic injury, even the one's who were awarded no damages. The NFL can't just tinker with Plan B and somehow make it palatable.'

Obviously, the players' representatives and their lawyers were pleased with the jury's decision.

Players' attorney Jim Quinn said players will now seek an injunction to stop the NFL from instituting some other form of player restriction. The players hope to have the injunction in place by Feb. 1, 1993 when the Plan B restriction process would begin under the old rules.

The verdict will also effect other antitrust actions currently pending against the NFL. One is a 1988 player class action suit and another is a suit filed by running back Marcus Allen of the Los Angeles Raiders who contends he was hurt financially because he was restricted for three years under Plan B.

The most immediate impact of the jury's decision could be the future of 15 veteran restricted players who are currently holding out because they haven't signed 1992 contracts. Included in that group is Philadelphia tight end Keith Jackson.

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'Jackson could become the Andy Messersmith of pro football,' Allen said, referring to baseball's first unrestricted free agent.

The jurors could not reach a verdict after their first day of deliberations Wednesday.

The trial took 36 days over a three-month span.

Rothman warned Tuesday that the case would 'determine the future of professional sports in America' and predicted that unrestricted free agency would mean 'the destruction of the National Football League as we know it today.'

Attorneys for the NFL Players Association dismissed Rothman's arguments as 'hype' and 'bunk.'

An attempt to reach an out-of-court settlement failed as negotiations between the two sides broke off last month.

The NFL Players Association is funding the lawsuit but is not a plaintiff. The plaintiffs claim that the NFL's free agency rules are an unreasonable restraint of trade under antitrust laws.

The jury of eight women found the NFL guilty of violating antitrust laws in a case challenging the legality of the leagues' Plan B system for restricting veteran players. After 14 hours of deliberation over two days, the jury decided Plan B was illegal, and has 'a significant harmful effect on competition in the market for players in the NFL.'

Advertisement

The jurors said Plan B did help competitive balance in the NFL, but it violated the law because it was too restrictive, more than was necessary to maintain the competitive balance.

Under Plan B, teams protect 37 players and leave the rest on its roster free to sign with other teams without compensation. That rule means that star players, such as quarterback Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins and running back Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions, would most likely never qualify for free agency in their careers.

The jurors awarded monetary damages to some of the plaintiffs but none to others. Players awarded damages were cornerback Mark Collins of the New York Giants ($178,000), guard Dave Richards of San Diego ($240, 000), former Giants' running back Lee Rouson ($75,000) and cornerback Frank Minniefield of Cleveland ($50,000).

No damages were awarded to quarterback Don Majkowski of Green Bay, running back Freeman McNeil of the New York Jets, former Detroit Lions linebacker Niko Noga and cornerback Tim McDonald of Phoenix.

Under antitrust laws these damages are tripled, so each player will receive three times the amount.

NFL attorney Frank Rothman said the league would appeal the decisison.

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Former NFL Players Association president Gene Upshaw hailed the verdict as a landmark decision and said that all players in the NFL who were restricted in 1990 and 1991 are now free to sue the league for damages.

The jurors could not reach a verdict after their first day of deliberations Wednesday.

The trial took 36 days over a three-month span.

Rothman warned Tuesday that the case would 'determine the future of professional sports in America' and predicted that unrestricted free agency would mean 'the destruction of the National Football League as we know it today.'

Attorneys for the NFL Players Association dismissed Rothman's arguments as 'hype' and 'bunk.'

An attempt to reach an out-of-court settlement failed as negotiations between the two sides broke off last month.

The NFL Players Association is funding the lawsuit but is not a plaintiff. The plaintiffs claim that the NFL's free agency rules are an unreasonable restraint of trade under antitrust laws.

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