A senior U.S. district judge opened the latest court proceedings between the NFL and NFL Players Association by saying he was a “bit disappointed” that neither side had settled its labor dispute.
David Doty isn’t the only one who feels that way.
The NFL lockout has officially entered its third month with no end in sight. The latest impediment toward a settlement came Thursday morning in court. Doty said he would need additional time before ruling whether the NFLPA should be awarded a lucrative sum in damages based upon the manner in which the NFL has negotiated its television contracts.
The NFLPA argued that the league violated the collective bargaining agreement by compromising the value of its television deals in exchange for “lockout provisions.” Such clauses would give the NFL access to as much as $4 billion during a work stoppage, which would help the league better weather a prolonged lockout.
The NFLPA is seeking a judgment that includes $707 million in television money as well as “a big number” in damages, according to NFL attorney Gregg Levy. The latter sum is under seal by court order.
The NFLPA also has asked Doty to ban the NFL from having access to the television money during the lockout. The NFL has annually received a portion of that money by this time in previous seasons, but the bulk of the payments don’t come until later in the year.
“What the players have asked and consistently asked is for fundamental fairness,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said while flanked by four players (Minnesota linebacker Ben Leber, Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, Seattle guard Chester Pitts and retired wide receiver Sean Morey) outside the U.S. district courthouse in downtown Minneapolis.
“Our men want to play. Our fans want to enjoy the game. We’d like to be engaged in a business partner that complies with the contracts that they sign and the law of this land. Today, the players made their case to the court. We’ll wait for the court to decide.”
Both sides are also awaiting word about whether the NFL lockout will be allowed to remain in place. After being forced to partially lift it for 24 hours last month per the order of federal district judge Susan Nelson, the Eighth Circuit Court in St. Louis granted the NFL an emergency stay that allowed the work stoppage to resume. That appellate court hasn’t issued a further ruling on the stay and may not until a June 3 hearing on the matter in St. Louis.
If forced to lift the lockout, NFL teams would begin conducting offseason workouts and personnel moves that are currently barred by the league. It also would likely put the NFL on track for an on-time start to the regular season.
This is what makes rulings on the lockout and television money so important. They could prove tipping points that would bring both sides closer to remedying what is now the longest work stoppage in NFL history.
After a one-month break, the two sides in the Brady v. NFL antitrust lawsuit are scheduled to resume mediation Monday in St. Paul, Minn., under a federal magistrate. However, there is little optimism that such talks will result in a new CBA.
“We’re hoping for a settlement,” NFLPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler told Doty during his court arguments. “Sometimes you need a few more court rulings to create an environment for such a setting.”
In March, Doty overturned a decision by special master Steven Burbank that claimed the NFL did negotiate in “good faith” and showed “sound business judgment” with its television partners. Echoing Burbank’s ruling, Levy said the NFL should only have to pay the NFLPA $6.9 million stemming from the addition of a 17th Sunday night game given to NBC.
“We continue to believe the special master got it right, that Judge Doty’s findings do not give adequate deference to the special master,” Levy said. “We are hopeful that Judge Doty will look at this record and see that the players’ claim for damages and injunctive relief should not go beyond what the special master ordered.”
NFLPA attorneys argued the 17th Sunday night game — a Pittsburgh vs. New Orleans matchup that aired opposite the World Series last October — was actually worth $39 million to the league rather than the $12 million claimed by NBC. That would raise the NFLPA’s share for that game to $22.4 million under CBA rules that provided the now-decertified union with 57.5 percent of the NFL’s total annual revenue.
NFLPA attorneys also referenced the $3.6 billion in television contracts the league is set to receive from five partners: ESPN ($967 million), NBC ($775 million), FOX ($713 million), CBS ($610 million) and DirecTV ($555 million). The NFLPA is seeking compensation for digital rights that the NFL sold as well.
After presiding over two hours worth of arguments, Doty said he was taking the matter under advisement and would issue a ruling in “due season.” The NFLPA asked Doty for an expedited ruling on the television contract escrow situation.
“I don’t think the issues here are likely to be treated with the same urgency or on the same schedule (as the lockout situation),” Levy said. “We probably won’t know the ultimate outcome to this preceding for quite some time.”
The NFL also plans to appeal any unfavorable ruling by Doty to the Eighth Circuit Court. That would potentially stall labor talks even more.
Levy said the NFL didn’t plan to borrow the entire $3.6 billion from networks with the provision that it would be repaid in the future. Levy, though, did say that league commissioner Roger Goodell has planned to dole a “small amount” of that sum to franchises.
“The league is not comfortable with the money being put in escrow,” Levy said. “What the players have proposed is an escrow arrangement that would go beyond depriving the league of those revenues. It would in effect give the players some entitlement to that money, which we don’t believe they are entitled to.”
The NFL-NFLPA stalemate began in mid-March when labor negotiations under a federal mediator collapsed. The NFL locked out its players after the NFLPA decertified — paving the way for the Brady v. NFL lawsuit — and the CBA expired.