Hanging on Frank Minnifield’s wall is a sketch portrait of the eight men who took on the NFL in the summer of 1992. The black and white faces seated in the courtroom represent positions on both sides of the football. Along with Minnifield sit RBs Freeman McNeil and Lee Rouson, QB Don Majkowski, OL Dave Richards, DBs Tim McDonald and Mark Collins and LB Niko Noga.
Sadly, the men who forever changed pro football are mostly forgotten today.
Plan B free agency was the NFL’s response to the labor strife that filled the 1980s, including player strikes in 1982 and 1987. Players wanted to negotiate freely once they satisfied the terms of their contracts; the owners proposed a compromise. Under Plan B — introduced in 1989 — each team could protect 37 players. Unprotected players were free to negotiate. During the 1990 offseason, 184 of 490 unprotected free agents signed with new teams and increased their average salaries by 70 percent, according to league data.
Protected players not under contract also could negotiate, but their original team had the right to match any offer, and the often unreasonable compensation required to sign a Plan B free agent resulted in very little movement — only two signings in four years.
Minnifield was a Pro Bowl cornerback for Cleveland in four consecutive seasons (1986-89). During the 1990 offseason, Minnifield, who was then 30 years old, says the Browns assured him that if he found an offer close to the $1.2 million he was seeking, they wouldn’t stand in his way. They’d be “reasonable.” The Redskins were willing to meet the Plan B free agent’s demands but balked when Cleveland asked for a high-round pick in return. “Nobody was going to make that deal for a defensive back that probably only had three or four years left,” he says. The Browns, meanwhile, had structured a trade with Atlanta more to their liking, only the Falcons were prepared to pay Minnifield a base salary less than the $750,000 he was making in Cleveland. Trapped, Minnifield eventually re-signed with the Browns midway through the regular season.
This scenario played out in every NFL city.
In Green Bay, Majkowski was coming off a remarkable year. He had guided the Packers to their first 10-win season in 17 years and had led the league in passing (4,318 yards). His agent, Bob Woolf, informed the quarterback that several teams were willing to pay big money and sacrifice draft picks to sign him. Only the offers never came in. Because Green Bay had the right to match any deal, they told all other suitors to back off — why drive up the market if Green Bay was going to re-sign him anyway?
The Packers offered him $600,000; after a 45-day holdout Majkowski settled on a one-year, $1.5 million deal. On the one hand, Majkowski’s new deal was a significant increase from his 1989 salary. On the other, it was much less than what the open market would have provided.
“It was tough,” he says. “You had guys like Jeff George coming out of college in 1990, hadn’t played a down in the NFL, and he’s getting a huge signing bonus and salary.”
Frustrated by the NFL’s closed-loop system, Majkowski and Minnifield attached their names to a lawsuit which argued the league’s free-agency model violated antitrust laws. McNeil was listed as the lead plaintiff.
Players had taken on management before. Legendary Baltimore Colts TE John Mackey won his antitrust lawsuit against the league in 1977, which was to open the doors for free agency. However, little progress was made, and players like Mackey who had shown the courage to take on management often found themselves blacklisted by the sport they had given their bodies to.
None of this deterred McNeil and the seven other plaintiffs. Someone had to stand up. Recalled McNeil in a USA Today article last year, “I remember my attorney telling me, ‘Here’s your opportunity to put your butt where your mouth is.’ ”
“Plan B was a step,” Minnifield says, “but in that step the league was still trying to do business the way they had been doing business all along.”
Minnifield says the players didn’t think they had much of a chance in Judge David Doty’s Minnesota courtroom. “It was almost like going for that 60-yard field goal. We’re probably not going to make this, but we’ll go ahead and try anyway.” Only this attempt sailed through the uprights. The eight-woman jury found for the players, and four of the men (Minnifield, Collins, Rouson and Richards) were awarded damages. (Majkowski said the NFLPA provided him with compensation after the trial to offset his time and expenses.)
All eight players testified; not a single owner took the stand.
During closing arguments of the 36-day trial, NFL attorney Frank Rothman told the federal jury: “We believe the entire professional sport will be affected and, no question, it would be the destruction of the National Football League that we know today.”
Rothman was right; football changed, almost immediately. Weeks after the ruling, Detroit's D.J. Dozier, Philadelphia's Keith Jackson, Cleveland's Webster Slaughter and New England's Garin Veris were declared unrestricted free agents. The following year, NFL owners gave the players free agency in exchange for a salary cap. Today the NFL is the envy of all other sports leagues, in large part due to the parity created from revenue sharing and its free-agency system.
Credit the eight plaintiffs for making it happen, even if today’s players and fans have forgotten their names.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac