A federal judge Friday delayed judgment on a request by the National Football League players' union for a preliminary injunction that would have granted immediate unrestricted free agency to one-third of the league's 1,600 players.
The union had argued that since there is no basic agreement between the players and the owners, any player whose contract expired this year should be free to sign with any team.
U.S. District Judge David Doty agreed with the league that the contract should remain in effect, even though the old pact expired in August.
He urged both sides to continue bargaining on the free agency issue and said he couldn't determine whether an "impasse" exists until the National Labor Relations Board rules on allegations by the union that the owners did not bargain in good faith.
"Whether the parties have, in fact, reached impasse as to the free agency issues is not clear," Doty wrote. "Even if the evidence were clear, however, the court could not make the impasse determination at this time."
The injunction would have allowed 527 of the league's 1,600 players to negotiate with any team when their contracts expire Monday. Among the players affected are 220 starters and 37 with Pro Bowl experience.
Doty, reached in Aspen, Colo., declined to comment on his ruling.
The NFLPA suit seeks treble damages under the Sherman Antitrust Act and isn't expected to go to trial for another 18 months. It asks the court to throw out the league's free-agency system. Under that system, a team that loses a player must be compensated with a draft pick or allowed to match the offer.
In 10 years only one player changed teams under the current free-agency system.
The union claims the system violates antitrust laws; owners contend they are exempt from those laws on those issues.
The suit also asks the court to eliminate the college draft and to void all player contracts signed after Sept. 16, 1987, most of which are contracts with replacement players who played during last season's 24-day strike.
The same court, but a different judge, gave the players unrestricted free agency 12 years ago. But the NFLPA agreed to restrictions in its 1977 and 1982 contracts with the league.
The 24-day strike ended Oct. 15. The suit was filed that day.