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.
September 20, 1992
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
One of the most intriguing exhibits entered into evidence during the NFL trial was a document that had nothing to do with pro football. It was a "summary of operations" of the 1990 baseball season, prepared for baseball's owners by the accounting firm of Ernst & Young, and it was used to support the pro-free agency testimony of Don Fehr, president of the baseball players' union.
The summary refuted much of the baseball owners' incessant poor-mouthing, including the claim of clubs in small television markets that local TV revenue can make or break a team financially. In fact, the document indicated that the biggest difference between the eight most successful teams and the eight least successful is attendance, not TV.
If the owners are so concerned about the stability of the game, it would seem simple enough for them to come up with a revenue-sharing scheme in which the richest teams (some of which stand to make as much as $25 million in profit this year) share some of their wealth. But instead of looking to their more prosperous fellows for relief, the owners seem determined to turn on the Players Association.
The owners cling to the hope that they can once and for all rid themselves of arbitration and, in doing so, fundamentally reorder the game's financial landscape. Like the NFL owners, baseball's bosses are about to be weaned from their cash cow—an insanely generous $1.1 billion, four-year contract with CBS that expires at the end of next season—and they are already wailing like infants.
The prospects for a settlement grew grimmer last week when the owners put up a chillingly united front at a meeting in St. Louis, where they unanimously agreed to anoint Bud Selig, the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, as the sport's quasi-commissioner. There's reason to fear that in their newfound togetherness, the owners are preparing to shut the game down, perhaps for all of next season. According to the common wisdom, the curtain will go up on this ugly charade before Dec. 11, the last day the owners can reopen their labor contract with the Major League Players Association. According to the script, the owners would participate in a negotiating charade with the union, which would lead to a bargaining impasse and culminate in a lockout before spring training.
After Happy Chandler was booted from the commissioner's office in 1951, he noted, "Baseball owners are the toughest set of ignoramuses anyone could ever come up against. Refreshingly dumb fellows. Greedy, shortsighted and stupid." Or as Edward Bennett Williams, the late owner of the Baltimore Orioles, cheerily said as he greeted Peter Ueberroth when Ueberroth attended his first owners' meeting as the new commissioner in '84: "Welcome to the den of the village idiots."
An III Wind Blows
Wind, a new film about the America's Cup, may be the best sailing movie ever. Then again, try to name another. Mutiny on the Bounty had more to do with keelhauling than keel design. Also, it had a story, an area in which Wind seems to find itself badly becalmed.
The movie is the thinly veiled story of Dennis Conner, who became the first American in the event's 132-year history to lose the America's Cup. Matthew Modine stars as the American skipper who seeks redemption by trekking to Australia to win back both the Auld Mug and his true love, played by Jennifer Grey.
Wind features spectacular racing footage of 12-meter yachts crashing through mountainous seas and into each other. Former America's Cup skipper Peter Gilmour served as the technical consultant and has given the regatta sequences an authentically salt-air feel that even landlubbers will find bracing. Too bad the filmmakers didn't hire a romance consultant to bolster the lame love story between Modine and Grey.
In the end, Wind falls prey to that most common of sports-movie ailments—predictability. A winch handle could guess which boat will win the all-important final race. Still, with the next America's Cup challenge a distant three years off, Wind is not the worst thing you could have in your face.
They Said It
Chuck Knox, Los Angeles Ram coach: "Most of my clichès aren't original."
John Lowenstein, Baltimore Oriole TV analyst, on Lee MacPhail's assertion that he would rather stay retired than be baseball commissioner: "He can stay retired and still be commissioner. That's what they want anyway."