Plan B, as in Bogus
Baseball's pennant races were languidly winding down last week, and the NFL season was just beginning, but as so often happens in those two beleaguered sports, much of the action took place off the field. In Minneapolis, a U.S. district court jury struck down the NFL's Plan B compensation system because it violates antitrust law and awarded four of the eight players who had filed the suit a total of $543,000 in damages, which was trebled as stipulated by federal antitrust law, to $1.63 million.
The decision, which the owners say they will appeal, seems likely to set off a wave of additional lawsuits by the remaining 1,079 players whose bargaining rights were restricted by Plan B since it was put in place in 1989, and if the awards in those cases are comparable with those made in Minneapolis, the owners will have to fork over at least $211 million. That sum doesn't include the legal fees for both sides, which the owners would have to pay in all Plan B cases. A lawyer for New York Jet running back Freeman McNeil, one of the plaintiffs in Minneapolis, says the NFL will pay more than $10 million in legal costs for that trial alone. And emboldened by last week's outcome, the NFL Players Association is now expected to look for a player willing to go to court to challenge the college draft. It's likely that the draft, too, will soon be gone.
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue shifted uncomfortably in his front-row seat during the trial's final arguments. Plan B might just as well have been called Plan T for Tagliabue, for he was its author and it was supposed to be the answer to the labor relations problems he was hired to solve. When the league's owners were choosing a successor to Pete Rozelle in 1989, they selected the man who had been their antitrust lawyer in more than 50 cases instead of someone with a football background. Now Tagliabue has no labor contract and has TV revenues that have flattened and will soon head down, and he must face his restive constituency this week to explain it all. One NFL owner says that Tagliabue is in no jeopardy of losing his job, but the football commissioner cannot have been heartened by the example made of his baseball counterpart, Fay Vincent, when he began telling major league owners things they didn't want to hear.
With so many players headed for court, there is much that can be learned from the Minneapolis trial about what constitutes giving 110% on the witness stand. Herewith is a list of suggestions.
1. DON'T BE AFRAID TO BE A HUNK. Dave Richards, a guard for the San Diego Chargers and a dead ringer for Superman, collected the largest award ($240,000) of the eight players. The eight members of the all-women jury never took their eyes off him during his five hours of testimony, and when he came back to watch final arguments, Richards was again the object of the jurors' gazes even though he was sitting with a stunning blonde.
2. GET A HAIRCUT BEFORE THE TRIAL. Niko Noga, a former linebacker with the Detroit Lions and the St. Louis Cardinals, had one of the best documented claims of the eight. His case was good, but his hair was bad. His elaborate 'do features a billowing cascade of multihued locks that leap out of his noggin and fall to the middle of his back in a ponytail. Niko got nada.
3. Do NOT SAY, "IT'S NOT A MATTER OF MONEY, IT'S A MATI'ER OF PRINCIPLE." In one of the trial's more dramatic moments, McNeil told the jurors the money didn't matter to him; the case was about freedom. The jurors, obviously impressed, gave the players their freedom, but they didn't give McNeil a dime.
One other thing players should learn is the meaning of the word trebled. If the NFL owners don't make labor peace soon, these judgments could be the beginning of trouble  for them. As Players Association director Gene Upshaw says, "It's a big tote board out there."
Fehr and Loathing in Baseball