If the judge hearing the United States Football League’s $1.32 billion antitrust suit against the National Football League has his way, the suit will never come to trial.
U.S. District Judge Peter Leisure has twice urged attorneys for both the USFL and the NFL to make a serious attempt to settle out of court. On one occasion, Leisure even called the attorneys into his chambers separately and told them to come to an agreement so that the suit does not reach his courtroom.
The suit charges NFL owners with conspiring to deny the USFL access to just about everything necessary to pro football: players, officials, stadiums and, most importantly, national television contracts.
A hearing is scheduled for today in federal court here on a request by the USFL for a summary judgment, or quick decision; for an injunction against the NFL, and for a move to void the NFL’s television contracts. If the injunction is granted, it may throw the NFL into chaos.
The USFL has always claimed collusion between the NFL and the networks, but the problem has become more acute because the USFL has decided to switch this year from a spring-summer schedule to a fall schedule, concurrent with the NFL schedule.
In its legal papers, the USFL claimed, “The existence of the NFL’s contracts with all three networks and the NFL’s success in committing each of the three networks to televise a substantial number of hours of NFL football each week of the fall NFL season has precluded, continues to preclude, the USFL from entering into a meaningful negotiation for the sale of USFL television rights . . . for the USFL’s 1986 fall season.”
USFL sources said that Leisure’s efforts to push the attorneys into a settlement may be an indication that the NFL is in trouble. The sources said that the only party that will really lose if the case goes to trial is the NFL and that only the NFL has anything to offer in the way of a settlement; the USFL really has nothing to give up. The result, they said, can only mean one thing: a merger.
There have been recent reports of a possible merger, with two to four USFL clubs going to the NFL. But Joe Browne, director of communications for the NFL, said Wednesday, “That’s an old rumor and nothing more than that.”
This season, the USFL will play in the fall for the first time. The league, pared from 18 teams to two four-team divisions, will start an 18-game regular-season schedule Sept. 14. The league will have teams in New Jersey; Baltimore; Birmingham, Ala.; Memphis, Tenn.; Phoenix; Jacksonville, Fla.; Orlando, Fla.; and Tampa, Fla.
It is routine for a judge in a civil matter to push the lawyers in the case into trying to reach a settlement.
The USFL suit is similar to the one filed against the NFL in the early 1960s by the American Football League, charging the NFL with monopoly and conspiracy in the areas of expansion, television and player signings. The trial in that case lasted two months and was decided in favor of the NFL, but it took 2 1/2 years before the the appeals were completed.