Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t know what rules will be in place for the 2011 season if the league is forced to lift its player lockout.
Late Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson denied the league’s request for a stay on her Monday ruling lifting the lockout. Lifting the lockout could lead to a slew of personnel moves like trades and free agency that were barred when the NFL enacted a work stoppage March 11 following the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement.
The NFL and the players traded court filings Wednesday, and Nelson wrote that the NFL "has not met its burden for a stay pending appeal, expedited or otherwise."
Now that its request has been denied by Nelson, the NFL will seek relief by filing an expedited appeal and stay motion to a higher appellate court. But the rules governing the NFL as that process unfolds are murky.
Plaintiff attorneys in the Brady vs. NFL antitrust lawsuit who requested the lockout’s abolishment filed a 23-page legal memorandum Wednesday morning opposing the league’s stay request.
"If the NFL defendants are faced with a dilemma, they put themselves in that position by repeatedly imposing rules and restrictions that violate the antitrust laws," the memorandum states. "Any alleged predicament is of their own making."
Plaintiff attorneys also asked that Nelson demand the league post a $1 billion bond if the stay were granted. They claim that figure was derived by such factors as roughly 25 percent of 2010 player salaries, the possibility of future damages in Brady vs. NFL and the claim of "irreparable harm" being done to players during a work stoppage. The latter contention greatly influenced Nelson in her 89-page decision lifting the lockout.
The NFL’s lawyers responded Wednesday afternoon: "There is no basis for the Brady plaintiffs’ demand, reflected in their opposition paper … for any bond — let alone a $1 billion bond — as a condition of a stay pending appeal."
Before the stay request was denied, Goodell said he remains uncertain about when the league must begin normal operations or the guidelines that Nelson will enact.
"We have to wait until we hear what the judge’s ruling is first and then try to understand what her instructions are," Goodell said. "We’ll deal with it from there."
One possibility is the return of labor rules from the 2010 season that included no salary cap, minimum team spending requirements for players and the need for six accrued seasons for a veteran to become an unrestricted free agent. Player representatives could push Nelson for the more lenient free-agent designation that existed through the first 17 years of the CBA.
Teams struggled to interpret Nelson’s ruling Tuesday and essentially continued to enforce the lockout when players for some squads began returning to team headquarters. The NFL Players Association also issued a memo Tuesday night proclaiming that player agents could now begin negotiating contracts for potential free agents. It’s believed general managers are refusing to conduct those talks until receiving further clarification from the league on how to proceed.
"You have a period of uncertainty," Goodell said. "That’s something you want to remove. It’s one of the things I don’t think is healthy for the players, the clubs and, most importantly, our fans. The sooner we can get rid of that uncertainty the better."
Goodell said he hoped that Nelson wouldn’t order an immediate lifting of the lockout. The resumption of veteran personnel moves would throw the NFL draft from Thursday through Saturday into chaos.
"You want an orderly process here," Goodell said. "We have to react to when judgments are made. We’re obviously going to comply with those judgments, but we also want to make sure it’s done in an orderly fashion."
Goodell also expressed concern about the long-term direction that the Brady vs. NFL litigation is taking. Goodell said that many of the NFL’s cornerstone operating rules that have promoted parity, like the annual player draft, the salary cap and player free agency after a certain number of accrued seasons are being threatened.
Goodell said such radical changes haven’t been broached by player representatives in CBA negotiations. Goodell, though, said the Brady vs. NFL lawsuit alleging unfair labor practices is seeking to overhaul "things I think are fundamentally what made this game great."
"Some of the aspects they’re challenging — future drafts — that’s part of the competitive balance of our league," said Goodell, who also expressed such sentiment in an op-ed piece in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. "That (balance) is good for the players from my standpoint because there are many rules in there than could benefit the players. It’s good for teams in the competitive balance. It’s great for the fans because that’s what they want. They want hope.
"We want to make sure teams can continue to be successful in (small markets like) New Orleans, Green Bay and Jacksonville. Our system has allowed that to happen. We don’t have to change the entire system of the NFL and that’s what’s being challenged. That’s when I get protective of the league."
Asked whether such reforms are simply part of the CBA negotiating process, Goodell said, "You’ll have to speak to them. They’re pursuing this litigation. That’s where this litigation goes."