The National Football League claimed a highly significant victory for its free-agent and compensation systems yesterday when its positions were upheld by an arbitrator.
The decision, stemming from the so-called John Dutton case, upheld the NFL's position that players do not become total free agents one year after their contracts expire.
Arbitrator Bert Luskin issued the decision, saying the language in the collective-bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association "is not ambiguous . . . and does not lend itself to the construction advocated by the NFLPA."
Luskin also denied the union's claim that the NFL's Management Council had engaged in a conspiracy and perpetrated a fraud upon the union when the NFL clubs uniformly interpreted the contract the same way.
The NFL Players Association challenged the compensation system of the NFL in a case brought in behalf of defensive end Dutton, then of the Baltimore Colts and now of the Dallas Cowboys.
Dutton contended that when he played out the option year of his contract with the Colts, he became a free agent, eligible to shop his services to other clubs with no strings attached.
The Colts insisted that the collective-bargaining agreement with the union provided that the club retained for an addition year the right to match another club's offer or to receive compensatory draft choices.
Dutton's personal interest in the issue became academic in 1979 after he agreed to be traded to the Cowboys in a transaction outside the compensation procedure.
The players association pursued the case because, it argued, there was no appreciable movement of free agents from club to club due to the required compensation.
Before the April 15 deadline for option-playouts to report offers from new clubs, only three veterans reported such offers.
In two instances, the old clubs did not exercise their rights to match the offers from the new clubs. The new clubs did not have to compensate the old clubs because the players involved were signed for salaries below the level requiring compensation.
In the third instance, the old club exercised its right to match the offer of a new club and retained the player.
Charles W. Sullivan, vice president of the New England Patriots and counsel for the NFL Management Council, noted yesterday that the union charged the Nfl, in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, with conspiring to prevent the movement of free agents and that the court agreed with the league that the arbitration system be used.
Sullivan said the union then took the case to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and again arbitration was recommended.
Luskin, of Chicago, who decided in favor of the NFL yesterday, is one of two arbitrators agreed upon by union and management.
Attorney Sullivan was asked to speculate on the relevancy of the football decision to the current baseball negotiations.
"I think this leads the way for baseball to come up with a compensation system," he said, "now that football has demonstrated it can survive scrutiny in the courts."
Sullivan's father, William H. Sullivan Jr., president of the Patriots, said, "This was a monumental victory. This upholds the authority vested in the commissioner (Pete Rozelle) by the league. We would have had veterans sitting out a year just to become free agents."
The NFL Players Association previously had won rulings in courts that the draft and compensation clause (known as the "Rozelle rule") were illegal, but settled the suits for $16 million as part of a $105-million collective-bargaining agreement with the league.
Players' agents have unsuccessfully challenged the free-agent and compensation systems, contending they restrict their clients' bargaining options.
Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFL Players Associaton was quoted by United Press International from New York as saying, "We're obviously disappointed. We have not yet reviewed the decision and I will issue a statement after reviewing the decision."
Garvey's office in Washington reported he was en route from out of town and not available for comment.
In 1975, major league baseball's arbitrator, Peter Seitz, decided in the Andy Messersmith-Dave McNally case that one year in a contract meant only one year and not perpetuity. The ruling opened the way for players to become free agents after their contracts expired, with their old clubs retaining no proprietary rights and receiving no compensation.