The Supreme Court yesterday refused to hear a challenge to the National Football League's free agency rules.

Over two dissenting votes, the court let stand a ruling that the league's restrictions on a player's switch to another team do not violate federal antitrust law.

The country's highest court was unwilling to review a 1989 decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refusing to hear the class action suit filed by nine players and backed by the NFL Players Association. The suit was filed one day after the bitter 1987 players strike ended without a collective bargaining agreement between owners and the league's 1,600 athletes.

The 1989 decision stated that the NFL cannot be sued under antitrust laws for blocking its best players from testing their value on the open market once their contracts expire while a players union is intact.

Employers and unions enjoy an exemption from the normal antitrust rules for restrictions they agree on in a union contract. The question in the case was whether, and for how long, that exemption applies after the contract expires.

Justices Byron R. White, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions in the 1930s, and Harry A. Blackmun, who wrote the landmark 1972 ruling that baseball is exempt from antitrust laws, dissented yesterday. It takes four votes for a case to be reviewed.

The National Basketball Players Association and the National Hockey League Players Association supported the request to have the court hear the case, along with the Bush administration and the attorneys general of nine states.

Basically, the court's decision means that the 1987 lawsuit has reached its legal end. However, James Quinn, a New York-based lawyer for the players, said the Supreme Court's decision only delays an inevitable jury trial. Quinn and NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw say the NFLPA is no longer an official union and similar antitrust suits by individual players will succeed.

In asking the high court to hear the case, the players argued that the ruling would create a "virtually unlimited antitrust exemption for employers in unionized industries" and would have "immediate and irreparable consequences in both the billion dollar professional football industry and all other professional sports in which unions have previously existed."

Joe Browne, a league spokesman, called the action "positive news for the league but not an unexpected development. It confirms that the NFLPA's lengthy course of litigation -- rather than negotiation -- will only prolong the time before a new collective bargaining agreement is reached."

"The only thing that I could hope is that now everyone would realize that it is time to sit down and get to business," said Pittsburgh Steelers President Dan Rooney, a member of the NFL's Management Council. "I'm not going to say that it will force them to abandon litigation, but now they must realize that they have taken this thing to the highest court in the land and failed. I'm not criticizing the decision to do that, but they must realize that they've already taken one course and maybe they should try another."

Upshaw said in a statement: "While we are disappointed that the Supreme Court has decided not to consider this issue, the decision does not affect any antitrust claims the players have for the period after the NFLPA's abandonment of its collective bargaining status in November 1989."

One such suit involving eight players is scheduled for trial on Aug. 8 in Minneapolis. The NFL has countered with a suit asking the federal court there to clarify the NFLPA's status. At issue is whether the NFL can claim protection from federal antitrust laws while making it virtually impossible for the league's top players to work for the team of their choice.

Quinn said that it is "conceivable but not probable" that another antitrust suit by the players could reach the Supreme Court. "But different issues would be involved," he said.

The Justice Department claimed the 8th Circuit ruling could have implications well beyond the sports and entertainment industry and could "destabilize labor-management relations" in more than 600 collective bargaining relationships involving more than three million workers.

Staff writer Ruth Marcus contributed to this report.

WHAT THE RULING MEANS

WHAT THE OWNERS RETAINED:

The NFL retained its right of first refusal, which provides that if a player's contract is about to expire and another team makes an offer, the original team can keep the player by matching the offer. If a team loses a player, the team signing the player must compensate the other team with draft picks.

WHAT THE PLAYERS WANTED:

The NFLPA would like complete free agency. For instance, if another team's offer was matched by the player's original team, the player would have the choice of which team he plays for.