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Back to drawing board for NFL players. Union leaders hope lawsuit will succeed where strike failed

The National Football League strike is over, but the key issue of a player's freedom to move from one team to another is not. The union could not get the owners to budge on the question of free agency this time - either at the bargaining table or via a 24-day strike that wiped out one weekend and reduced three others to games played by replacement teams.

But even as it capitulated and ordered its members back to work without a contract, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) filed suit in US District Court in Minneapolis charging the league with monopolistic practices in violation of antitrust laws.

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Thus the dispute has come full circle, for it was in this very same legal arena - and on essentially the same issues - that the players scored their first big labor-management victory a dozen years ago.

The current suit asks the court to throw out the college draft as well as the league's system of free-agent compensation and the right of first refusal for a team threatened with losing a player to free agency. These are pretty much the same areas of disagreement, in one form or another, that have historically separated the two sides, and that have been at the core of similar disputes in other sports such as baseball and basketball. So basically the NFL and its players are right back where the whole merry-go-round started in the early '70s.

It was then that pro athletes began seriously and regularly challenging the concept that a player more or less ``belonged'' to his team indefinitely.

In several cases decided in 1974 and '75, courts ruled that after playing out the option year of his contract, a player could become a free agent. They also rejected the NFL's attempt to limit such movement by awarding compensation - in the form of another player - to any team losing a free agent.

In negotiating the 1977 contract, however, the union - in return for other concessions - agreed to reinstitute compensation. Since then, there has been virtually no free-agent movement, leading the NFLPA to renew its challenge to the system - first at the bargaining table, next via the strike, and now again in court.

This year's talks were unsuccessful. The contract expired Aug. 31 and on Sept. 22, after playing the first two weeks of the season, the 1,585-member union went on strike. The league canceled Week 3 but resumed its schedule on Oct. 4, using replacement players plus union members who had crossed the picket lines. Attendance and TV ratings were down sharply for these games.

But with player support for the strike eroding (261 union members already having gone back and hundreds of others reported on the verge of doing so) the union called it off Thursday - though too late to meet the league's deadline for the strikers to play this past weekend.

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Gene Upshaw, the former star lineman who now heads the NFLPA, said the negotiations had left the players no choice but to seek legal remedies. But he refused to call it a surrender, saying the union was just pursuing its aims in a different direction. ``We tried bargaining, now we'll let the courts decide.''

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