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NFL Owners, Players Sing in Harmony : Pro football: Labor settlement will create free agency and salary cap, and will limit money for rookies.


After a long fight, they have made peace in the NFL.

The league's players and club have a new, seven-year agreement, they announced Wednesday in a joint statement.

Ending five years of acrimony, they have stopped arguing and started fraternizing and living under the terms of a complex, historic working agreement that is about to make many of the NFL's five-year veterans free agents.

Settlement terms disclosed Wednesday specify that on Feb. 1, when their contracts expire, members of the league's first free-agent class will have the right to negotiate with any of the NFL's 28 clubs.

And by 1996, according to another provision, most four -year veterans will have that right.

The agreement also schedules seven-round, instead of 12-round, drafts for the next seven years, plus a compensatory eighth round for teams losing heavily in the free-agent market.

"We're looking forward to an unprecedented seven years of harmony and (peace)," Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "The (owners and players) are going to build this game together."

The players will help build it, they said, by re-establishing their union, the NFL Players Assn., which they disbanded several years ago at the beginning of a difficult effort to force the league toward free agency.

"Freedom day is here," Raider receiver Tim Brown said. "It means you get a chance to get paid according to your work and production."

After Wednesday's settlement, which was accelerated by an ultimatum Tuesday by U.S. District Judge David L. Doty of Minneapolis, was announced, the NFL sailed off on a sea of uncertainty.

Nobody knows:

--How many free agents will actually move to other teams.

--How many will choose cold-weather cities such as Green Bay or Buffalo.

--How free agency will affect the competitive balance of NFL clubs.

--If every owner can afford it.

--Whether the clubs will invest their income in a handful of star players at the expense of draft choices, other rookies and the solid--but seemingly nameless--performers who form the foundation on every team.

The settlement stashes a maximum of only about $2 million per club for 1993 draft choices, who can get more only with multiyear contracts.

"The idea is to provide the bulk of the available new salary money for NFL veterans," players' researcher Michael Duberstein said. "That will leave less for draft choices who haven't yet proved themselves in pro ball."

The league's five-year labor struggle--which began with the expiration of the only other bargaining agreement players and owners have signed in the last 11 years--ended largely because of the leadership of three men who had one thing in common: They knew what they wanted.

The three are Tagliabue, the commissioner who has made labor peace his first priority for three agonizing years; Doty, the judge who told the two sides to settle Wednesday or else; and Gene Upshaw, the players' union's executive director.

"The players wouldn't have this favorable agreement if it weren't for Gene Upshaw," said NFL chief counsel Richard Berthelsen.

From Minneapolis, expressing delight with his handiwork, Doty said: "Both sides seem unhappy, leading me to believe they have a good mutual (contract)."

Among those who recognized the importance of Tagliabue's role was one of his foremost critics, Doug Allen, Upshaw's assistant.

"The 28 owners wanted 28 different things," Allen said. "I don't see how Tagliabue kept them in line."

At the end, Raider owner Al Davis also was instrumental in helping to bring the peace that had been so elusive, Minneapolis sources reported.

"I'm not sure we'd have had an agreement today without Al," an NFL leader said. "He was the most effective (owner) in Doty's courtroom (Tuesday)."

The NFL's new peace was ushered in on an imaginative salary-cap proposition: When player costs reach 67% or more of total designated revenues, a cap will be triggered. Thereafter, each club will be required to spend a specified number of millions for players.

Designated revenue means, mainly, television and gate receipts--about 95% of the owners' total gross revenues. Other club income--principally luxury-box revenue--will be retained by each owner.

"It's very likely that the league will hit 67% this season," said the Rams' executive vice president, John Shaw, the Management Council member who, his peers noted, is responsible for much of the new agreement's arithmetic.

A CPA and lawyer, Shaw has been the league's designated financial expert for many years.

Spending more than 67% for players this season would bring capped funds down to 64%, 63% and 62% in the subsequent three years, leveling off at 62% in 1996 and triggering a four-year requirement for free agency to replace the five years.

Among other things, the settlement package provides $195 million to deal with the suits against the league by Freeman McNeil, Marcus Allen, Reggie White and other athletes.

"We're out of court now," said the players' lead counsel, Jim Quinn. "And we're looking forward to seven years (without lawsuits)."

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