U.S. Football League owners will meet in New York Monday to decide the future course of their league. After receiving a devastating legal blow Tuesday, the vital signs were fading.
"Unless we pull a rabbit out of a hat, it doesn't look good for us playing this season," Fred Bullard, co-owner of the Jacksonville Bulls, told the Associated Press yesterday. "I'm an optimistic person, but it's hard to be optimistic."
USFL training camps are scheduled to open in two weeks, but players don't know which way to turn. Pete Kugler, Baltimore Stars nose tackle, said yesterday, "I'm so confused right now I can't give you a sentence. Players' futures are in the balance. It's total mayhem."
Teammate Irv Eatman, a tackle, said, "The chances for us playing in the USFL this fall are probably nonexistent, let's face it. It's high time someone started showing compassion for the USFL players. These are real people, not numbers. These aren't laws or statutes, but real people with wives, children and mortgages.
"It's getting ridiculous. Careers are slipping away. If the USFL is going to play this year, let's do it. If not, we ought to be allowed to seek employment elsewhere."
Or, as Larry Csonka, the former National Football League All-Pro running back who is the general manager of the Bulls, said, "I'm trying to figure out a way to run a football team on our cut, which is about 25 cents. It doesn't look good."
In a 15-minute meeting with attorneys from the USFL and the NFL yesterday, Judge Peter K. Leisure set a hearing for Sept. 3 in the U.S. District Court to consider all post-trial motions.
During an hour-long conference call yesterday afternoon among the eight USFL club owners, league counsel Harvey Myerson and Commissioner Harry Usher, it was agreed to advance the league meeting in New York by two days, to Monday, when the future course of the USFL will be charted.
Myerson said yesterday he plans to present transcripts and videotapes of media interviews with jurors held immediately after their "illogical" verdict had been announced Tuesday, claiming the jurors were confused as to how to award damages.
The five-woman, one-man jury found the NFL liable for using monopoly power to harm the USFL and to retain control of the professional football market, yet ordered it to pay just $1 in damages. Since all damages awards are trebled in antitrust cases, the NFL owes the USFL $3. The USFL had sought $1.69 billion in damages.
Robert Fiske, co-counsel for the NFL, said, "Our position is the jury verdict is a final verdict. You cannot upset a jury verdict based on statements of jurors unless there is a situation where a juror is subject to extraneous pressure from outside the jury room, which didn't happen here."
Myerson viewed it differently. "We've got a national furor on our hands," he said. "We're sitting in the most illogical situation imaginable: we have a unanimous judgment of willful intent to violate antitrust laws and to injure the USFL and then they come down with a damage of $1, which was incomprehensible, until you heard them explain it on TV."
One juror, Miriam Sanchez, a high school English teacher from Yonkers, N.Y., who described herself as the staunchest USFL supporter among the six jurors, said immediately after the verdict that she felt the USFL was entitled to between $200 million and $300 million in damages. However, Sanchez said she consented to award only $1 because she believed a large damages award would have been reduced by the judge. Sanchez said she believed the judge, at his discretion, could increase the amount of a small-damages award. As presiding judge, Leisure has the power to decrease a damages award, but not to increase it.
By awarding the $1 damages award, the jurors appeared to choose one option that Leisure had given them in his four-hour instructions seven days ago. "Just because you may have found the fact of some damage resulting from a given unlawful act, that does not mean that you are required to award a dollar amount of damages resulting from a given unlawful act," Leisure told jurors. He added, "You may decline to award damages . . . or you may award a nominal amount, say $1."
One expert in sports law, Lionel Sobel, a professor at Loyola Marymount Law School in Los Angeles, had predicted an NFL victory in this case from the outset. He said yesterday it was his understanding of the case that there were "three jurors favoring the NFL position and three favoring the USFL position. Those favoring the NFL position might have been more stubborn or more persuasive" in swaying the jury toward the virtually nonexistent damages award.
Sobel said $1 damages awards are often given "when the jury is split." He said if Sanchez "thought that the judge was going to add to the $1, it was a mistake she made."
Myerson said he will attend the USFL meeting Monday and will explain the USFL's legal options. He said those options include seeking a new trial solely on the damages award ("the finding of liability has already been made") before a new jury. Myerson said such a trial would be "short in scope, maybe only a week long." He said another option was that Leisure could order a new trial on all issues.
Another USFL option would be to appeal the entire jury verdict to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. This option, Myerson said, "is not attractive to me because of the timing standpoint."
In addition to damages, the USFL seeks injunctive relief to force the NFL to yield at least one of the contracts it has with the three television networks so that the USFL can negotiate a deal of its own with that network. After playing a spring schedule for its first three years, the USFL moved to the fall in 1986 and has been unable to secure a network television contract. Leisure is expected to rule on the injunctive portion of this case at the same time he rules on other motions.
"What we've got to rely on now," said William Dunavant Jr., owner of the Memphis Showboats of the USFL, "is what happens with the judge. . . . I know that we need some encouragement and maybe with injunctive relief, hopefully it will come quickly.
"If we get no injunctive relief, it's hard for me to tell you that eight teams are going to play football, looking at $3 million to $4 million-per-team losses and no renumeration at the end of the year.
"I can only speak for the Showboats, but we would be willing to sustain losses for 1986 . . . if there was some light at the end of the tunnel . . . and if CBS, ABC, NBC will negotiate, even for the 1987 season. We don't want to disband."
During the conference call among USFL owners, Stephen Ross, the majority owner of the Stars, said, "Everybody was as dismayed as everyone across the country" over the damages award. He said the Stars office in Baltimore has "gotten an unbelievable amount of phone calls from around Baltimore, supporting the team and not understanding the jury."
Asked if the USFL might not play again, Ross said, "You need eight teams to play. If someone drops out, we probably won't play this fall."
Special correspondent John Kennedy and staff writer William Gildea contributed to this report.