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Stakes high in NFL TV cash fight
The NFL knows the drill all too well.
League attorneys will return to a Minneapolis court room Thursday for proceedings involving another labor dispute with its players. Based on past precedent, the NFL not only expects an unfavorable ruling but is already planning an appeal to a higher court.
This was the league's modus operandi following the decree by a federal district judge that the NFL must lift its player lockout. And it will be how the NFL conducts business once again if the NFL Players Association receives a sizable monetary award for a dispute involving the league's television contracts.
Judge David Doty ruled in March that the league violated the collective bargaining agreement by compromising the value of its broadcast rights in exchange for guaranteed money even if the 2011 season was canceled. The NFLPA successfully argued that the NFL planned to use such funds in a "war chest" to help team owners weather a prolonged work stoppage.
Doty — who has long presided over cases involving the NFL and its now-decertified players union — will host a hearing Thursday that could include an announcement of damages. The Sports Business Journal reported Monday that the NFLPA has asked Doty to extend the damages to cover the NFL's commercial advertising agreements with sponsors as well.
The NFLPA wants the television contract money and damages held in escrow. The NFL is asking that Doty limit the damages to $6.9 million, which was the amount the NFLPA was shortchanged from the league's addition of a 17th Sunday night game in 2010.
Should Doty hit the league with substantial damages — think in the mid-nine figure range to as much as $1 billion — it may prompt some team owners to push NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to adopt a more conciliatory tone in future labor talks with the NFLPA. Regardless, there will likely be no change in the league's position until the appeals process plays out.
This has proven a successful strategy so far. After the NFL partially lifted its lockout for 24 hours at the order of U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson, the Eighth Circuit Court granted the league's request for an emergency stay that put the work stoppage back in place. Based on the lack of a subsequent ruling by the three-judge panel, the lockout may remain in place through at least a June 3 hearing in St. Louis.
During a media conference call last month, NFL counsel and CBA lead negotiator Jeff Pash referenced that the league has a "somewhat better track record" upon appeal in higher courts than in initial rulings levied in labor-related disputes.
The lockout has frozen all personnel transactions and prevented players from reporting to team headquarters for medical treatment and offseason workouts. If ordered to end the work stoppage, the NFL would have to re-welcome players and enact free-agency rules that could pave the way for an on-time start to the 2011 regular season.
The lockout has already caused the cancellation of minicamps and other offseason on-field work, which is a major detriment to teams with new head coaches and/or coordinators. If the work stoppage drags into July, preseason games will be threatened as well. The NFL already has said it would relocate a scheduled Oct. 23 game between Tampa Bay and Chicago to Tampa if the lockout hasn't lifted by Aug. 1.
No labor talks are scheduled between NFL and NFLPA leaders who broke off negotiations in mid-March upon the expiration of the CBA. As part of the Brady v. NFL lawsuit that alleges the league is committing antitrust violations, attorneys from both sides are scheduled to resume mediation May 16 in St. Paul, Minn., after almost a month's hiatus. Such mediation under a magistrate judge was ordered by Nelson in early April after she held a preliminary hearing on the plaintiffs' request for an injunction lifting the lockout.
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