Taking issue with other courts, a federal judge held Wednesday that the NFL has been liable for antitrust violations since its last agreement with the players union expired in 1987. U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth was ruling in favor of players who sued because owners unilaterally imposed a $1,000-per-week salary on developmental squad players in 1989. Last season, that salary was negotiated.
It was the second victory in a week for the union in its widely dispersed court battles with the league. Last week, U.S. District Court Judge David Doty in Minneapolis cleared the way for players to sue for free-agency by throwing out the NFL's labor exemption.
That will be appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in Minneapolis, which two years ago ended the NFL Players Association's antitrust suit against the league by upholding the league's exemption.
Lamberth, however, noted that he disagreed with the appeals court, a ruling that is valid because he is in a different circuit _ the District of Columbia.
He said it is his opinion that the antitrust exemption should end with the expiration of the contract, providing the impetus for a new agreement.
"The certainty that treble damages under the antitrust laws would attach after a date certain would create the atmosphere of economic certainty and urgency necessary for the parties to negotiate seriously and sign a new collective bargaining agreement," Lamberth wrote.
The NFLPA continued to insist that its dispute with the league would have to be settled in the courts. In fact, the union has renounced its bargaining rights.
Richard Berthelsen, the union's general counsel, said he believed the decision could lead to an end to the league's draft, due to expire after next spring under the 1982 agreement.
"Among other things," said union executive director Gene Upshaw, "this means the NFL can never impose a wage scale on the players, which they have threatened to do."
The NFL, on the other hand, continued to contend that it wants nothing more than a collective bargaining agreement.
"Judge Lamberth's preliminary ruling on the labor exemption is at odds with the ruling of the Minneapolis federal court, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and other federal courts," NFL vice president Joe Browne said in a statement.
"While these court cases may present interesting questions for lawyers and judges, we continue to believe that it is best for NFL players, teams and fans if these football issues are resolved at the collective bargaining table with the NFLPA or other representatives of the players."
In the case involving the 1989 developmental squad players, Lamberth rejected the NFL's motion for dismissal and ordered a trial, which the union said it hoped would start late this summer or in the fall.
_ Staff writer Gary Shelton contributed to this report.