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USFL Awarded Only $3 in Antitrust Decision : Jury Finds NFL Guilty on One of Nine Counts

July 30, 1986|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — National Football League was found guilty Tuesday of violating an antitrust law but survived the United States Football League's $1.69-billion suit here when a bothered and bewildered jury of five women and one man awarded damages of just $1 to the failing football league.

Damages in antitrust cases are tripled, so the award given to the USFL will actually amount to $3.

The verdict, coming after about two years of pretrial litigation and 2 1/2 months of trial testimony, shook Courtroom 318 in Manhattan's U.S. District Court. But it will shake the USFL far more, perhaps to the ground. Although the decision certainly discredits the NFL, it probably dooms the USFL which, in its fourth year, had planned to switch to fall play in direct competition with the NFL but without the established league's television revenue sources.

What the jury decided, after 31 hours of deliberation over five days, was that not only does the NFL enjoy monopoly power, but it also unfairly conspired to gain its competitive edge and did in fact violate antitrust law--"to exclude competition within major league football."

That constituted one of nine charges against the NFL. Among other things, the jury could not determine that the NFL, as the USFL had insisted, actually prevented the USFL from obtaining "access to a national broadcast television contract."

Said jubilant NFL co-counsel Frank Rothman: "Number one, this means the lawsuit was not a TV case. They're (the jury is) saying, 'We believe the NFL, that the USFL sought to force a merger.' They're saying you can't use the court to do that."

The NFL had contended that, of course, it enjoys a TV monopoly but can't really help it. That was established by an act of Congress in 1972, 12 years before the USFL played its first down.

As far as the USFL goes, the NFL said, the new league's failure was simply bad management and, finally, a merger mania mandating that it play opposite the established league in the fall. As NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle said, "They shot themselves in the foot."

Rothman said further: "Number two, to show how upset they were, they assessed damages of $1, an absolute slap in the face as far as I'm concerned."

Likely, it is a knockout blow. Without a large judgment to go along with an otherwise favorable verdict--the kind of judgment that would enable the USFL, which has lost nearly $200 million in its three years of existence, to continue, or without the injunctive relief that would strip one of the three networks from the NFL and make it available to the USFL--the "victory" is hollow.

"We showed what we tried to show--that the NFL acted unlawfully to injure us," USFL Commissioner Harry Usher said. "The jury agreed that the NFL acted in a predatory fashion, but then whitewashed the damages."

Shaking his head, he said: "They found all the right things, just no damages."

USFL attorney Harvey Myerson found no consistency in the verdict either. "I can't fathom it," he said. "We did our job. We persuaded the jury of violations, in a case the NFL said was a nonsense case. But then they didn't nail them like I asked them to.

"To me, it's inconceivable. I mean, this is an interesting finding: Yes, there was conspiracy, yes there was intent. And then they say there was no overt act."

Myerson had told the jury, and everybody else, that without a huge settlement, the USFL would surely die. Usher would not admit to that, saying only that the league's fate would be determined at an owners' meeting in New York on Aug. 6. Some of the USFL clubs still intend to open camp in mid-August, but others were more realistic.

"We're lost now," said Rudy Shiffer, vice president of the Memphis Showboats. "We're dead."

But if the USFL principals didn't understand what happened--how they could win a case and lose a league--they should know that the jury didn't understand it either. The jury finished the trial in as much confusion and misunderstanding as it had begun.

It developed that one or more of the jurors thought that the judge would establish the damage claim. Miriam Sanchez, who had favored the USFL cause, said the award was a compromise among jurors. "Definitely a compromise," she said outside the courtroom, as thunder rumbled above. "One dollar was all we could do, or we'd have a hung jury."

She said that three of the six jurors had favored the NFL and that three others wanted to award damages as high as $300 million to the USFL. But they were so boggled by the task at hand, Sanchez said, that they decided on the $1 amount, believing that Judge Peter K. Leisure would understand that as a signal for him to decide the damage award. "I felt we had to put our faith in the court," she said.

When the USFL's Myerson heard this, he was nearly apoplectic. "She said what ?" he asked. "That is not the procedure. I don't understand this."

Then he began asking reporters for their notes, the better to establish a need for a retrial or appeal, which he said was certain.

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