Players' contract rights stymie pro sports. Unions want more freedom for members to choose where they play

In the sports world, it's called free agency. And it's a right that most American workers take for granted. Once they fulfill their contract, most employees can work for whoever will hire them. But professional athletes in America's three favorite sports argue that - to one degree or another - they don't have that right. Events this week mark another turning point in their struggle to improve their free-agent systems.

Professional football players were scheduled to strike early this morning over the issue.

Meanwhile, pro baseball players won an important decision yesterday from an arbitrator, who ruled that the owners had destroyed the free-agency market in 1985. The decision could have important ramifications for other sports, such as pro basketall, where players and owners are struggling over free-agency in contract talks.

``The biggest dispute right now - and for some time - is going to be free agency,'' says James Dworkin, labor-relations professor at Purdue University's Krannert management school in West Lafayette, Ind. ``I think you'll see vigorous confrontations whenever the issue comes up.''

Charles Grantham, executive vice-president of the National Basketball Players Association, adds that ``free agency is as big an issue in sports as there is.''

The biggest fireworks are taking place in football.

After months of fruitless negotiations, the owners and the NFL Players Association appeared unable to agree on a contract before the union's strike deadline, set to begin just after last night's game between the New York Jets and New England Patriots. The big obstacle: free agency.

``There seem to be large areas where the hurdles are not insurmountable,'' Jack Donlan, the owners' chief negotiator, told reporters several days ago in Chicago. ``It's only in this area, where we get to talking about free agency, that no matter how you cut it ... they propose a system that looks a lot, smells a lot, and feels a lot like the baseball system.''

Theoretically, at least, major-league baseball retains a much more flexible free-agent system than football.

And though the football players softened their stance on the issue last week, the owners appear unwilling to do more than liberalize the current system of handling free agents. ``Free agency didn't work in baseball,'' says Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers. ``And it would be worse in football.''

The owners' real concern: If good players can choose to play for any team, the football owners will bid themselves into bankruptcy trying to get them. ``They don't want to compete against each other,'' says Bob Woolf, a sports agent in Boston. ``It could mean substantial amounts of money.''

Free agency, where practiced, has meant a healthy boost in player salaries. In 1975, the last year under the old system, the average baseball player earned only 13 percent more than his football counterpart. By 1981, he was earning 106 percent more. Basketball owners, meanwhile, became so concerned about rising pay that in 1983 they instituted a cap on the total each team could spend on player salaries ($6.2 million for the coming season).

Despite the owners' claims, however, free agency probably would not bankrupt football, according to several sports observers. In fact, football ought to be able to absorb the costs better than baseball, because the owners have less financial incentive to win at all costs, says one sports expert. Win or lose, each team gets an equal chunk of the television revenue. Even baseball management does not term free agency a disaster.

``On the whole, free agency has been good for baseball,'' says John Westhoff, associate counsel of the Major League Baseball player-relations committee. Owners claimed they had learned to control their spending. This year, for the first time in memory, the average baseball salary went down - by 5 percent.

But in his decision yesterday arbitrator Tom Roberts claimed the owners illegally decided among themselves not to sign each other's free agents at the end of the 1985 season. Possible remedies will be announced later this week. Another arbitrator is handling a similar collusion charge involving free agents from 1986, which analysts say is even stronger because it involves better-known players.

Pro basketball players are making the same charges about their team owners.

``They want to collude with their buddies to keep the prices down,'' says Mr. Grantham of the National Basketball Players Association. ``In any other business, it's difficult to collude because you're competitors. In the sports business, you're competitors but you're partners [too].''

Both management and union say they remain far apart in their contract talks for the new season, which begins Nov. 6. The talks are further complicated by the expiration of the 10-year-old court settlement that set up pro basketball's free-agent system. The union opposes two constraints on the league's free agency: the salary cap and the right-of-first refusal, which allows a team to retain a player if it matches his best offer from another team. The union is also considering suing the league over its college-draft system.

Though basketball players have never gone on strike, the football union has struck at each of the last three contract talks. The last impasse, in 1982, lasted 57 days. This time the owners are taking a stronger stand.

``We're not going to do what we did in the past - and that's shut down,'' says Tex Schramm, president of the Dallas Cowboys. ``We're going to offer football entertainment.''

The owners agreed unanimously two weeks ago to field alternative teams, made up of current players who cross the picket line and would-be players who were cut from the teams during the preseason. Mr. Schramm says the new teams are scheduled to begin playing the week after next, if the strike isn't resolved. Many players and sports observers are skeptical that many fans will turn out for these games.

``No one takes this as a perfect solution,'' concedes Mr. Donlan, the owners' negotiator. But ``we've had a strike by this union each and every single time we've had a negotiation. And we had to try something that's different.''

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