Gene Upshaw, labor leader in charge of fighting the NFL, has spent the last five years trying to win free agency for the league’s veteran players.
Thursday, in a Minneapolis courtroom, he got it for Keith Jackson, an all-pro tight end, and three other holdouts.
Federal Judge David S. Doty granted the four their unrestricted rights to negotiate with any team until next Tuesday, when, as required by law, he said he will hold an evidentiary hearing.
Sources on both sides said the hearing will be mostly a technical process, because it will cover the same ground that was traveled in Doty’s court this summer in an antitrust suit against the league by several players.
“That’s four (players) so far,” Upshaw said. “And nearly 300 other NFL players will become free agents on Feb. 1 when their contracts expire.”
League spokesmen seemed resigned to Thursday’s loss but disputed Upshaw’s prediction about any other players. They said Doty’s decision doesn’t free anyone else and sets no precedents.
The players Doty identified in his ruling were Jackson, who belonged until Thursday to the Philadelphia Eagles; Webster Slaughter, Cleveland Browns; D.J. Dozier, Detroit Lions, and Garin Veris, New England Patriots.
Only players who are not under contract to NFL clubs were eligible for free agency in the judge’s order. The Jackson four were unable to come to terms with the teams that owned their rights under NFL rules.
Doty’s action grew out of this summer’s Freeman McNeil trial, in which a jury of eight in Minneapolis found the NFL in violation of antitrust.
In effect, Doty invalidated the first-refusal compensation restrictions in the league’s labor system. The restrictions had bound the league’s best players to the clubs that owned their rights.
Until last week, six other players had been grouped with Jackson, but they have since signed or been traded or waived.
Upshaw, the NFLPA’s executive director, dealt immediately with the possibility that none of the league’s 28 clubs would sign Jackson or the others before Tuesday.
His attorneys sent a message to NFL attorney Frank Rothman that the NFLPA “would view it as collusion in contempt of the court’s order” if NFL club owners agree to await developments instead of hiring the four free agents.
Rothman was traveling and unavailable. But in New York, NFL Vice President Joe Browne said: “We believe the court’s decision is incorrect and premature before an (appellate court reviews) McNeil. . . . It should be noted that the ruling affects only four players.”
Jackson, 27, is considered second only to quarterback Randall Cunningham on Philadelphia’s list of top offensive players. And the Detroit Lions have already expressed interest.
“We might want to look at a player of the caliber of Keith Jackson,” Coach Wayne Fontes said, adding that he won’t bring back Dozier.
The Eagles have not given up on Jackson.
Said President Harry Gamble: “All along, our position has been that we want (him).”
Other sources declined comment, although one called attention bitterly to Doty’s speculation that his order “might encourage a (player-owner) settlement.”
“That is shockingly naive,” the source said.
This is the second time in 20 years a group of NFL players has won free agency.
“Before, when there was the same window, John Riggins and 17 other players (switched teams),” Browne said.
That time, a new collective bargaining agreement ended a possible avalanche of other free agents.
This time, one of two things could end it if implemented before next Feb. 1: a new agreement, or a new owners’ plan supplanting Plan B.
Doty would have to approve any owners’ change.