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Whom Do You Trust in This Antitrust Case?

July 06, 1986|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

In its antitrust suit against the National Football League, the United States Football League has covered everything from Kafka to Kukla, Fran and Ollie, with a brief interlude to allow the USFL's most influential owner, Donald Trump, to defend himself against charges that he instructed waiters in his midtown Manhattan hotel to spy on NFL owners.

Trump, a billionaire real estate developer, was called to testify last week as the USFL brought its case to a dramatic climax with a Murderer's Row of witnesses. Following Trump to the stand were Al Davis, managing general partner of the Raiders, and Howard Cosell, who usually needs no introduction.

But with this jury of five women and one man, who knows? At one point, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was asked to explain to the jury the difference between a home game and an away game. This is as the USFL wants it. Its attorneys successfully challenged every prospective juror who had heard of The Refrigerator and even some of those who owned refrigerators.

Of the six jurors who started with this trial in U.S. District Court more than seven weeks ago, only one admitted to having even the slightest interest in sports. He later was excused because of a work-related conflict and was replaced by an elderly woman born and raised in England, who said, "I don't really understand American football." Two of the jurors were born in the West Indies and one in Panama.

After the NFL presents its case, which could take another month, the jury will be asked to determine the verdict in a trial that could significantly change professional football as we know it, or at least as we view it.

The USFL, which in 1983 introduced spring football because, as its owners said at the time, it did not want to compete with the NFL in the fall, now charges that it is on the verge of extinction because the NFL has made it impossible for another league to compete in the fall.

Specifically, the USFL hopes to prove that it is unfair for the NFL to have contracts with all three major television networks. The USFL's first fall season, scheduled to begin in September, will be televised only by cable and independent stations.

During his first visit to the witness stand, USFL Commissioner Harry Usher said the NFL "pushed and shoved" the USFL into its precarious position. Upon recall a few days later, Usher said the NFL "bashed and bludgeoned" the USFL. If Usher makes one more trip to the stand, this trial will be rated PG-13 for excessive violence.

In its defense, the NFL claims that it did not have to push, shove, bash or bludgeon, that the USFL self-destructed. One bit of evidence that the USFL does not attempt to dispute is the passing of the L.A. Express, which has been ruled a suicide. Furthermore, the NFL charges that the only reason the USFL filed a lawsuit was in a desperate attempt to force a merger with the NFL.

"Blackmail litigation," Rozelle called it.

If the NFL wins, it will not have the USFL to "bash" and "bludgeon" anymore. Usher said the league, which began with 12 teams, expanded to 18 and now has 8, would fold after the coming season, although Trump has indicated he might shut down his team, the New Jersey Generals, before the season.

That would enable the Generals' star running back, Herschel Walker, to play for the Dallas Cowboys, who own his rights in the NFL. In an effort to prove that NFL teams tampered with USFL players, the USFL asked Walker to testify about the Cowboys' contacts with him, including the time they presented him a jersey with his name on the back.

"Do you mind if he holds the jersey up, Your Honor?" USFL attorney Harvey Myerson asked.

"Your Honor, we don't mind if he puts it on," one of the NFL's attorneys responded.

While the outcome of this trial has been called a matter of life and death for the USFL, neither is the future of the NFL assured if it loses.

Depending on the formula, the USFL is asking for between $903 million and $1.695 billion in damages from 27 of the 28 NFL teams. The Raiders were excluded because the USFL contends they are the only NFL team that did not contribute to the bashing and bludgeoning. Consistent with his maverick image, Davis is the only NFL owner to testify on behalf of the USFL. If the USFL is awarded full damages, the 27 NFL defendants each would owe between $33.4 million and $62.7 million.

"We would own the NFL," Usher said.

Legal experts say it is unlikely that the court would allow the USFL to collect on an amount in that range, even if the jury awarded it. They say, however, there is a possibility that the jury's verdict would withstand an appeal if it found that the NFL's contracts with the three television networks inhibit competition from another league.

If the USFL wins an injunction to that effect, the NFL might have to forfeit its existing contracts with one or more of the networks. Or the NFL might be allowed to retain its contracts with the three networks as long as the USFL also has a network television contract for the fall.

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