NFL players should now feel free to embark upon a walking tour of Europe or a cruise around the world.
After all, there probably won’t be football any time soon.
That became apparent Monday following a legal decision allowing the NFL to keep its lockout in place indefinitely upon appeal of a previous ruling. The 8th Circuit Court announced the league can continue its work stoppage until a final ruling is made on the matter. Such a verdict won’t be announced until weeks after a hearing in the Brady v. NFL antitrust lawsuit is held June 3 in St. Louis.
The longer the lockout remains in place, the more leverage the NFL has in the labor battle with its players. Team owners are far better heeled financially to survive a prolonged work stoppage — even if it means the postponement of games or the cancellation of an entire season.
If the 24-page brief issued by the three-judge panel foreshadows the final ruling to come, the NFL Players Association may have made a huge error by deciding to litigate in mid-March rather than continue to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.
Two members of the three-judge panel hearing the appeal are far more sympathetic to the NFL’s legal position that U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson. She ordered the lockout to be lifted last month and rejected the league’s request for an emergency stay, which led to the NFL appeal to a higher court.
Circuit judges Steven Colloton and William Duane Benton wrote that they “have serious doubts the district court had jurisdiction to enjoin the league’s lockout and accordingly conclude the league has made a strong showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits” of its argument.
Colloton and Benton also crushed some of Nelson’s other main points:
• The dismissal of a labor statute (the Norris-LaGuardia Act) that the league claims is pertinent to its argument that her court doesn’t have jurisdiction to rule on this case as the NFL/player legal battle ensues.
• The supported claim of the Brady v. NFL plaintiffs that players were suffering "irreparable harm" during the lockout by not being able to ply their craft with teams during the offseason.
• Nelson’s contention that she was acting in the “public interest” by ordering the lockout lifted.
“The public interest surely favors some resolution between the parties that will permit professional football to be played in 2011,” Colloton and Benton wrote. “But in this legal context, we see no reason to differentiate between the public interest and the proper application of the federal law regarding injunctions.”
This type of ruling is exactly what the NFL had hoped for through its legal strategy. The league has long struggled to receive favorable decisions in Minnesota federal district courts, which is where legal labor disputes were heard under the rules of the prior CBA that expired March 11 and led to this mess. The key for the NFL was getting to the 8th Circuit Court upon appeal, where judges who have traditionally ruled in favor of big business would be more sympathetic to its plight.
So what happens next?
Player representatives may be more receptive toward returning to the bargaining table. The NFL reportedly made a new offer to the players Monday as part of the federal mediation ordered by Nelson in the Brady v. NFL case, but a plaintiff attorney told NFL.com that it was “probably not one that’s acceptable as is.”
With the NFL realizing another favorable circuit court ruling is likely that would further extend the lockout, the league probably won’t feel the need to make its best offer at this point. The NFLPA knows that.
Player reps also may still be willing to allow the legal process to take its course in circuit court and with another federal district judge on a separate case. David Doty is currently weighing how much the NFL must pay the NFLPA in damages for violating the CBA through its dealings on the league’s television contracts. Doty’s ruling could award the NFLPA damages in the high nine figures as well as keep the NFL from accessing as much as $4 billion from its television partners for the 2011 season to serve as “war chest” in a prolonged lockout.
Of course, the NFL plans to appeal any unfavorable Doty ruling to the 8th Circuit as well.
While some players are unquestionably being harmed by the lockout — especially pending free agents — the biggest damage suffered en masse will come in the form of lost paychecks if the regular season doesn’t start on time in early September. As much as NFL fans don’t want to hear this, that still gives both sides plenty of wiggle room to deal even if training camps and possibly the entire preseason fall by the wayside.
In other words, we still probably haven’t reached the CBA tipping point in the NFL-NFLPA battle even though players and teams can now say bon voyage to all the trappings of a normal offseason after Monday’s court ruling.