Reggie White Case Has Hearing Today The Eagles Star And About 450 Others Want To Be Free Agents. The Owners Foresee Chaos.

Posted: November 12, 1992

The most important NFL matchup of the week - perhaps of the year - takes place today in a Minneapolis courtroom, where attorneys will argue whether Eagles star Reggie White and about 450 other players should become free agents after this season.

White and the others were restricted from switching clubs last spring by the NFL's Plan B system, which tied most good players to their teams. But a jury in the case of McNeil v. the NFL ruled in September that Plan B violated federal antitrust laws.

Based on that verdict, attorneys for the roughly 450 players will ask U.S. District Judge David Doty to declare them free agents when their contracts expire in February. The league will counter that allowing one of every four players in the NFL to become a free agent would lead to immediate chaos.

Doty is expected to issue his ruling a week or two after today's hearing.

White is among 24 Eagles who will be directly affected by the decision. The list includes wide receiver Fred Barnett, running back Keith Byars, tackle Ron Heller, defensive tackle Mike Golic, and defensive backs Wes Hopkins and Izel Jenkins.

Other top stars who could be made free agents by the ruling include 49ers quarterback Steve Young, Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, Redskins linebacker Wilber Marshall and Dolphins wide receiver Mark Clayton.

Predictably, both sides professed optimism going into today's hearing. But if past motions serve as precedent, the players can be expected to prevail. Six weeks ago, Doty used the McNeil v. NFL verdict as a basis to declare Eagles tight end Keith Jackson and three other unsigned players free agents. Jackson, who made a base salary of $350,000 with the Eagles in 1991, quickly signed a four-year, $6 million deal with the Miami Dolphins.

Although Jim Quinn, the players' lead attorney, will seek total free agency for all players whose contracts expire after this season, he has provided Doty with a fallback position. Motions filed by Quinn earlier this month suggest a plan in which players would qualify for free agency after four seasons in the NFL. "It's not what we want, but it's an alternative," Quinn said.

The four-year plan would knock players such as Barnett and Emmitt Smith

from the free-agent list.

In baseball, players qualify for unfettered free agency after six seasons. In the NBA, a player qualifies after four or five seasons, depending on his previous contracts. Most players in the NHL never qualify for unrestricted free agency.

Quinn's four-year strategy is based on what the NFL Players Association argues is the average length of a player's career. An expert witness hired by the league, however, concluded that the average is just under eight years.

In settlement negotiations last summer, NFL owners said they would agree to free agency after four years - provided it was coupled with a salary cap. The eight players in the McNeil suit rejected the offer.

A committee of NFL executives has drawn up a new free-agent plan, but has not disclosed it. One source said the latest idea - which may be presented to Doty today - would allow free agency after eight seasons for starting players, and after fewer seasons for bench-warmers. There is no salary cap in the plan.

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