SBJ/February 14 - 20, 2000/No Topic Name

AFL players pull trigger on suit

There is no denying the low glamour quotient for an Arena Football League player, at least according to an antitrust lawsuit filed by six players.

The suit spells out a host of grievances, including a lack of health benefits, the loss of licensing fees and even a provision that calls for players to pay their own moving expenses if they get traded.

"In the AFL, you're at the mercy of the team and it's a take-it-or-leave-it world," said Mark Levinstein, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on Feb. 4. "The AFL owners want to make sure that [players] have no options."

The lawsuit followed a month of threats by both AFL officials and players over free agency and a variety of other labor issues. The dispute led to the creation of the Arena Football League Players Association, which is being backed financially by the National Football League Players Association and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which came on board after AFL players met with the union representatives.

The AFLPA is not a union. That is, it has not agreed to bargain collectively with the AFL over issues such as free agency, salary and benefit issues, and licensing fees. Instead, the group, which said it has about 200 AFL players on its membership roster, thinks it can better achieve increased players' rights through the courts.

Among the allegations in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J., are that AFL owners have conspired among themselves to restrict player salaries by allowing only one-year player contracts and by having the "unilateral right to release players and terminate their contracts." In addition, the lawsuit claims that the AFL requires players to grant the league all licensing rights to the players' names and signatures and prevents the players from signing any endorsements without league approval.

"The players have woken up and realized that their rights were violated," Levinstein said.

In late January, AFL owners threatened to cancel this year's season, which begins in mid-April, should the players file the antitrust lawsuit. The owners are set to meet Feb. 23 to decide their course of action and have spent the week following the filing of the lawsuit calling individual AFL players who have yet to sign up with the AFLPA.

AFL officials would not comment on any of the allegations in the lawsuit.

"The league intends to have a vigorous defense," said AFL deputy commissioner Ron Kurpiers.

A canceled season could be calamitous for the AFL, which has struggled for years to raise its profile and gain credibility. In the last year, the league has announced an expansion into major markets including Los Angeles and Chicago, signed a new television deal with TNN, ESPN and ABC, and signed an agreement with SFX Sports Group to sell national sponsorships. AFL franchise values have doubled in the last year to about $7 million per team.

The average player salary is $30,000, according to league officials, though Levinstein disputed the figure and labeled the league's standard player contract "draconian."

AFL officials said there is no base player salary level, with team owners adding to the player's salary based on performance and value to the team. The players are prohibited from negotiating with any other AFL team.

"The only way to become a free agent is to sit out a year, and the league pays players so little that they figure the players can't afford not to take what is offered," Levinstein said. "But we will do whatever the courts tell us. No lawsuit in the history of professional sports has caused a game to be missed."

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