A federal judge in Washington yesterday barred the National Football League and its member clubs from suing players in state courts to keep them from playing in the all-star games that the players union is planning.
U.S. District Judge John G. Penn's decision represented a partial victory for both sides.
Penn denied the National Football League Players Association's request for an order declaring unenforceable the portions of the NFL standard player contract that prohibit players from playing in football games not sanctioned by the league.
He approved the union's request for an injunction barring management from filing or prosecuting such suits in state courts throughout the country.
The Cowboys, Bills, Dolphins, Eagles and Cardinals had sued in state courts, seeking to bar their players from the all-star games, scheduled to begin Oct. 17 at RFK Stadium in Washington.
But Penn's decision left the way clear for management to sue the players in U.S. District Court in Washington.
There were other developments as the players' strike passed its 16th day, but none was expected to facilitate quick settlement.
The league made it official: for the third straight week, there will be no football. Next Sunday's games and next Monday night's game were called off.
Calling off of this weekend's games means that the regular 16-game NFL schedule will have to be reduced by at least one game per team; the NFL had announced that no more than two games per team could be made up. League officials have said they will consider calling off the entire season if the strike is not settled by the end of this month.
The NFLPA sent a message to league negotiators suggesting that contract negotiations be resumed later this week in Washington and that the club owners who are members of the executive committee of the NFL Management Council participate. The Management Council is the league's labor negotiating arm.
But Jack Donlan, the Management Council's executive director, rejected that, noting that the owners had met with Ed Garvey, the executive director of the NFLPA, and with three players Tuesday.
He said additional meetings would be futile unless the union drops its demand that a trust fund be set up to pay players on a seniority-based wage scale with performance incentive bonuses.
Garvey was not available yesterday. His office reported that he had to stay home because he has influenza.
NFLPA officials confirmed that the union is preparing a list of mediators whom it would consider acceptable should the dispute go to mediation. The names included Archibald Cox, a former solicitor general, and Elliot Richardson, a former attorney general.
Donlan has maintained for several weeks that mediators should be called in to help settle the dispute, but Garvey has said he will consider mediation only after owners come to the bargaining table for two days.
In his five-page decision, Penn said the NFLPA "will suffer great harm if it is forced to defend against multiple actions to enjoin its constituent members . . . Finally, piecemeal litigation of this controversy would not serve the public interest."
James C. McKay, a lawyer for the NFL, said the league has filed notice of appeal of the portion of the order that prohibits the NFL from moving against the players in state courts. He said there has been no decision on whether to proceed in U.S. District Court.
In turning down the union's request for an order declaring portions of the NFL's standard player contract unenforceable, Penn said "it would be premature to decide whether those paragraphs are enforceable on the present record, as there are outstanding issues of fact which must be further developed."
Joseph A. Yablonski, the NFLPA's lawyer, said he welcomes further litigation on that issue. "If the judge does get the full record, it will paint a pretty sorry picture of the way the NFL clubs have operated," he said.
The all-star games, originally scheduled to begin this Sunday at RFK Stadium, were pushed back a week because the lawsuits in the state courts blocked the players from organizing and practicing. The NFLPA is planning 20 such games, among teams organized according to NFL divisions. The Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting System has agreed to televise the games and promised the NFLPA a minimum of $500,000 per game, but the NFL also has sued Turner in the New York state courts.