American Football: NFL in the dock as players try to cash in their assets: Matt Tench reports on a bitter court battle that could spell the end of American football's cherished draft system

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The Independent Online
FOR two months now players and coaches from the 28 National Football League clubs have been hard at work preparing for the gridiron season which begins today. When historians look back, however, they will undoubtedly conclude that the most significant action took place in a Minneapolis court room.

The case is between eight players (Freeman McNeil of the New York Jets is probably the best known) and the owners of the NFL clubs, and the changes the players seek could fundamentally change the structure of the sport.

The central issue is free agency, the system by which professional footballers are allocated to clubs and then allowed to move on. Or rather, not allowed to. In essence it is the same issue as freedom of contract in British football, but the restrictions in gridiron would make Gordon Taylor wince.

Virtually all American footballers go through college first and when it comes to finding a professional employer they have no choice. The NFL draft takes place every May, and once chosen by a club the player is stuck with them. The club will offer him a contract, but should he think it insufficient he will find it almost impossible to be employed by anybody else. A trade (as transfers are known) can take place, but only if the club who drafted the player fail to match the offer made by another club, and the second club offer two first-round draft picks in exchange - a king's ransom in NFL terms. This remains true when a contract runs out. In the land of the free the players are shackled by a set of rules that might have been patented by a feudal baron.

The NFL justifies the system because the draft and subsequent lack of an open-transfer market are two of the main ways it maintains a competitive balance. The draft is concluded in a strict order, with the worst clubs picking first, and the best (those contesting the Super Bowl) last. It only works because a player has to go to the team who select him, and it means a lot of good players end up with a lot of poor teams.

There can be no doubt the system achieves its aim of parity, the Buffalo Bills being a notable recent example of a side who have used it to go from bottom to top. The NFL claims that balance is critical to its public appeal, and that appeal brings prosperity for league, owners and players.

The question for the court is whether this is achieved by being unfair to the players. They claim the system is illegal under anti-trust law and want to see the restrictions swept away so they are free to go to the highest bidder.

For more than a month now the debate has raged in the Minneapolis court house, and in the process a welter of fascinating information has emerged. In 1990, for instance, Jimmy Johnson, the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, made dollars 1.4m (pounds 700,000), while Marv Levy, his counterpart in Buffalo, made dollars 323,000 (pounds 161,000). Levy took his side to the Super Bowl; Johnson's team finished 7-9.

Also that year Norman Bramen, the Philadelphia Eagles owner and someone who had complained of the lack of reward in NFL ownership, paid himself dollars 7.5m (pounds 3.7m), though he reported no salary for the previous three years.

The concluding arguments will be made to the jury on Tuesday. How will it all end? From the start most commentators have felt the players had a very good case, and the onwers would therefore agree on a deal before the verdict embracing some sort of free agency - perhaps after five years.

However no deal has been made, and it appears the owners will see the case through. The players must remain favourites to accomplish at least some of their aims. If so the 1992 season may go down as the last one under the old rules and, to coin a phrase of the moment, from now it will be a whole new ball game.