The Bush administration has recommended that the U.S. Supreme Court hear the National Football League Players Association's antitrust lawsuit against team owners.

The players argue that restrictions on their ability to act as free agents violate antitrust laws.

The justices asked in June for the views of the solicitor general, the administration's advocate before the high court. Both sides in the case, Powell v. NFL, have been awaiting the administration's brief.

If the court agrees to hear the case, then decides in the NFLPA's favor -- both of which are far from certain -- it could change labor relations not only in the NFL but in other professional sports and even the entertainment industry.

In a 20-page brief filed yesterday, Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr told the court that the case "presents a difficult question" of antitrust law that should be resolved by the court.

The NFLPA hasn't had a collective bargaining agreement with the owners since Aug. 31, 1987, and it hasn't been an official union since decertifying last November after the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided the league's system of free agent compensation was beyond challenge.

The solicitor general's recommendation does not guarantee that the Supreme Court will hear the case. However, former deputy solicitor general Andrew Frey said the solicitor general's opinion "is very influential" with the court.

If the NFLPA receives a favorable ruling, professional football, basketball and hockey players likely would have much more negotiating power.

The solicitor general's brief, while not agreeing entirely with the NFLPA, represents a boost for the players.

"Obviously, this is terrific," said one of their lawyers.

Joe Browne, the NFL vice president of communications and development, said in a statement: "We continue to believe that the 8th {Circuit} was correct on its earlier ruling. If the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, we believe the court will also agree and confirm the 8th Circuit decision."

NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw decided to try to take the 8th Circuit ruling to the Supreme Court, which then in turn requested views from the Department of Justice and Starr. In the brief, Starr labeled the 8th Circuit's decison erroneous, saying it gave the NFL an "overly expansive" exemption for player restrictions under antitrust laws.