In what was a short-term loss for the National Football League Players Assn., but with the possibility of long-term gains, a U.S. district judge in Minneapolis Monday denied a union motion to grant free agency to 300 NFL players.
Judge David Doty, however, warned the owners that in the upcoming NFL antitrust trial he will preside over this year, "It is probable that the players will prevail."
The reason he refused to grant free agency Monday, Doty said, is because it would be disruptive with a new season starting and about 300 players unsigned.
In predicting that the players eventually would win in court, he was suggesting that they have a stronger case and that it would behoove the league to get a new collective bargaining agreement soon.
The NFL has been proceeding without an agreement since the 24-day players' strike last fall.
The NFL Management Council quickly adopted Doty's theme of bargaining.
Hugh Culverhouse, president of the council and owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Jack Donlan, the council's executive director, said in a prepared statement: "It is time to get out of the media and back to the bargaining table. We believe the NFLPA should resume bargaining at the earliest possible date."
Gene Upshaw, NFLPA executive director, said in a statement:
"What is significant . . . is that Judge Doty reaffirmed that what the owners have done since last season cannot survive antitrust scrutiny. The judge is warning the (owners) that they will face huge damages unless they stop their illegal conduct."
The day's clear losers were the players who would have been free agents with a different ruling, among them quarterback Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles and tight end Mark Bavaro of the New York Giants.
Until June 15, those players could have signed with other teams, but only under the restrictive compensation and right-of-first-refusal rules under which just two players have signed with new teams in 11 years.
But only linebacker Wilber Marshall of the Chicago Bears moved before the deadline, signing a $1.6-million, 5-year contract with Washington in March. The Redskins had to give up two first-round draft choices in return.
If the union gets a better bargaining agreement as a result of Doty's ruling, or if it wins in court, the player majority will be better off. But in the short term, Bavaro, for instance, must sign with the Giants for whatever they offer him or sit out the season.
This doesn't please Bavaro's agent, David Fishof, who said: "I think (this) sets professional sports back. I didn't expect them to get total free agency this year, but I thought it would start it. Now it's going to take years."
Other players and agents involved echoed Fishof's opinion.
Doty, who was appointed three years ago by President Reagan, said that after studying all the factors: "The court finds that the balance tips decidedly in favor of the owners and against granting a preliminary injunction."
This didn't surprise Upshaw, who said: "It is rare for a court to grant such relief prior to trial."
Doty has had presided over the case since last October, when the players filed their antitrust suit after the strike.
The two sides have not not held talks since Oct. 15.