SAN DIEGO, JAN. 29 -- On a day when National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle said he expects the league to expand by two teams within two years of reaching a collective bargaining agreement with the players union, a federal judge yesterday refused to declare more than 500 players free agents as of Monday.
Judge David Doty said in Minneapolis that he could not rule on the key issue of unrestriced free agency until the National Labor Relations Board determines whether an impasse between the players' union and owners actually exists over negotiations on that issue.
The NFLPA had asked Doty for a preliminary injunction to overturn the league rules restricting free agency that give a player's old team a right of first refusal or compensation from his new team.
The injunction would have allowed 527 of the league's 1,600 players to negotiate with any club when their contracts expired Monday.
In his opinion, Doty wrote that he could not determine whether there is an impasse between the union and league owners until the NLRB rules on allegations by the players union that the owners did not bargain in good faith. Doty said both sides have a duty to bargain in good faith on the issue of free agency.
Doty agreed with the league that the contract conditions should remain in force, even though the contract expired in August. The NFLPA suit, which seeks treble damages under the Sherman Antitrust Act and isn't expected to go to trial for 18 months, asks the court to throw out the league's system of free agency. The suit also asks the court to eliminate the college draft and void all contracts signed after Sept. 16, 1987 which is when the players began a strike which lasted nearly four weeks.
Responding to today's decision, Rozelle said: "I hope the judge's decision would drive the parties back to the bargaining table, not away from it. From what we understand at this point, the court has done just that. The decision clearly should encourage good faith bargaining by both sides. I believe bargaining can produce a far better solution than anti-trust litigation. And the judge's decision appears to support that."
Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association said: "We're very confident we will be vindicated eventually. We're comfortable with the ruling. We think it's a positive result for the union. The judge has said there is an impasse. The judge has not denied our motion for an injunction . . . We are clearly at an impasse . . . We are very encouraged by what he said.
"The judge said he needs more evidence before he makes his final ruling. If we give him what he says he needs, we are very confident it will go our way."
Earlier, Rozelle said at the news conference that the lack of a collective bargaining aggreement makes the owners "reluctant to entertain an expansion."
Rozelle said it would take two years to get a team on the field after an agreement on a new contract was reached. It would take that long because first an expansion committee must be selected, the cities chosen, and the teams stocked with players.
Rozelle also was noncommittal on cities he expects would get a new team, although he said say Baltimore "will be very seriously considered for expansion . . . they'll get strong consideration."
Rozelle said expansion probably would have occured sooner were it not for litigation over the last 10 years ranging from the Raiders' move from Oakland to Los Angeles to the antitrust suit filed by the USFL.
On other issues, Rozelle said the league now has 41 black assistant coaches (an increase from 14 in 1980) and that 200 of the league's 1,500 non-player jobs are held by minority employees.
The NFL does not have a black head coach or general manager and Rozelle said today he believes the first black head coach will come from the ranks of those 41 assistants, as opposed to a college coach.
"I can't say that I like the fact that so much attention has been focused on our minority hiring, Rozelle said. "I can't say I like it -- being called a racist league. But the facts belie that contention. Then again, if getting all this media attention causes clubs to hire more blacks and other businesses to hire more minorities . . . maybe its a good thing."
Despite the loss of four regular season games by the regular players during a 24-day strike, Rozelle defended the integrity of the season, saying that even by taking away the three replacement games, the same 10 teams would have made the playoffs.
Rozelle said that because of the strike, he estimated that over half the teams will lose money this year although he declined to name them.