Schedule release spoiled by lockout

BY Alex Marvez • April 19, 2011

NFL fans couldn't ask for a much sexier opening to the 2011 regular season.

The Green Bay Packers will begin defense of their Super Bowl title Sept. 8 against visiting New Orleans. Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore, Atlanta vs. Chicago and Dallas vs. the New York Jets are marquee Sunday contests slated for Sept. 11. And the first week ends with New England vs. Miami and Oakland vs. Denver as the Monday night matchups.

There's just one catch: None of this matters if the NFL work stoppage doesn't end.

An announcement promising that the league will play games in 2011 would have meant far more Tuesday than the release of the upcoming schedule. But all is quiet on that front as the league and NFL Players Association remain entrenched in a labor standoff.

Representatives from both sides in the Brady vs. the NFL antitrust lawsuit met again Tuesday in St. Paul, Minn., as part of the federal mediation ordered by U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson. An NFLPA spokesman says such talks are intended only to work toward a settlement of the lawsuit rather than reaching agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement.

Not that it matters.

Before making their next moves, both sides seem far more willing to wait until Nelson issues a ruling on whether the league will be forced to end its player lockout. A decision on that request made earlier this month by the Brady vs. NFL plaintiffs is expected by week's end.

Yet even if Nelson rules to lift the lockout, the NFL is expected to appeal the decision to an appellate court. That would mean even more time in which players can't have contact with their teams, get traded and/or test the free-agent market.

If the lockout ultimately is lifted, the NFL must allow the players to report for work. Some semblance of normalcy — albeit under still undetermined rules — likely would return. The league also would feel increased pressure to finalize a new CBA as the Brady vs. NFL case works its way through the legal system.

But should the lockout remain in place after a ruling by Nelson or an appellate court, the labor battle could become like a Snickers commercial.

As in, not going anywhere for a while?

The lockout's continuation would make team owners even more steadfast in their financial demands — even if it costs an entire season to get their way. The hope would be that players who don't have the same financial means ultimately agree to a labor deal that provides more favorable terms to the league than in the previous CBA.

The longer the labor strife continues, the more events will fall by the wayside. Forget about teams holding May minicamps. The NFL rookie symposium scheduled for late June is already in jeopardy. If training camps don't start in late July, preseason contests likely will be canceled.

The NFL has said a Chicago vs. Tampa Bay regular-season game slated for London in late October would be relocated to Raymond James Stadium if the lockout remains in place by August 1. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell even has raised the possibility of postponing Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis for one week and/or eliminating the bye week that follows the conference title games.

And it's all because the NFL and NFLPA can't agree how to split billions in revenues during a time of unprecedented financial prosperity for both sides.

The NFL schedule release is usually akin to a kid peeking inside his parents' closet in December. They'll learn what presents will be waiting under the tree but still can't open them until Christmas morning.

But unlike in previous years, Tuesday's announcement was yet another reminder that coal — i.e., no football — could be awaiting NFL fans once September rolls around.

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