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NFL labor talks collapse, leaving season in peril

League locks out players after union decertifies

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / March 12, 2011

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WASHINGTON — After failing to reach a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement yesterday, the National Football League imposed a lockout of its players, resulting in the league’s first work stoppage since 1987. The lockout puts the 2011 season at risk.

The players, after team owners failed to meet union demands to open up their financial records, moved to formally dissolve their union, a process known as decertification. That rare and dramatic step enabled the players to immediately file a class-action lawsuit suit against the league. The NFL responded by deciding to lock the players out as of midnight last night.

Among the plaintiffs in that complaint are two of the top New England Patriots — quarterback Tom Brady and guard Logan Mankins. The suit will thus be known as Brady v. National Football League because alphabetically, the league’s reigning MVP is the first plaintiff listed.

The complaint, filed in US District Court in Minneapolis, seeks, on antitrust grounds, a preliminary injunction aimed at blocking the league from implementing a player lockout. . That lockout went into effect at midnight when the NFL informed its teams and the NFL Players Association of its intention to cease football operations, a league source said.

How the court rules will determine whether the league resumes operations, or whether a lockout is allowed to proceed. Until there is a ruling — and none is expected for some weeks — players cannot sign with teams, trades are barred, and ordinary interaction between players and coaches is barred.

If an injunction is granted, games could still be played as the matter works its way through the courts. If the injunction is denied, then the players could be locked out and ordinary league operations would cease.

Both sides met until about 4:30 p.m. yesterday at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service building in Washington, D.C. before talks broke off.

The union declined to agree to a third extension of talks after owners balked at opening up their books. The union had made financial transparency a condition of considering a request that more of the league’s revenues — which exceeded $9 billion last year — go to the teams. As long threatened, the union then decertified itself, meaning the players were no longer represented as a collective bargaining unit, but as individuals in a trade association. That step was a prerequisite for the antitrust lawsuit.

With bargaining done for the time being, both sides went into accusatory mode.

The one neutral figure, federal mediator George Cohen, pointed his finger at both sides, saying the league and the union were so entrenched that his services weren’t needed at this time.

“The parties have not achieved an overall agreement, nor have they been able to resolve the strongly held, competing positions that separated them on core issues,’’ said Cohen, who presided over 17 days of negotiations. “It is the considered judgment of myself . . . that no useful purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue the mediation process at this time.’’

Both sides tried to make their case that they had tried to negotiate a fair deal and should not be blamed if the new season of America’s most popular team sport is delayed or canceled.

The NFL said it has made huge concessions, agreeing to “split the difference’’ between the money demands of the two sides — a gap of some $700 million. The league also outlined its proposals, including a salary guarantee of up to $1 million for injured players — a league first — a reduction in practice time and contact drills to reduce injury risks to players, no move to an 18-game season for at least two years, and the opportunity for players to stay in the league medical health plan for life.

“I think we know where the commitment was. It was a commitment to litigate, as we said all along,’’ NFL lead counsel Jeff Pash said of the union. “And that’s unfortunate because all it means is the eventual resolution of this business dispute is going to be delayed. We will have an agreement and we will have a system that is good for fans, good for players, and allows this game to grow.”

NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said the players were also willing to compromise on money issues, offering to limit the growth of the current salary cap by some $550 million over the next four years — reducing the total dollars available for player pay.“If the union was lockstep aimed at decertification and there was only going to be a litigation strategy, why would we ever provide one of the most successful businesses in the history of American business with $550 million of investment?’’ Smith said.

Smith also said the NFLPA offered for the second time yesterday to give owners up to $1 billion cash in exchange for equity in an NFL team or property.

“We didn’t even get a response,’’ Smith said.

The lawsuit was assigned to US District Judge Patrick Schiltz, not his colleague, David Doty, who has overseen NFL labor matters since 1993 and has several times ruled for the players. The lawsuit could still end up in front of Doty because it is related to the previous antitrust lawsuit, which Doty presided over.

Last night, all eyes were on the NFL as it mulled how to proceed. It had two options: lock the players out, or impose some sort of system for the league to continue to operate.

If the NFL seeks to continue operations under the same league rules that applied in 2010, the NFLPA would seek action by the court on whether such guidelines are legal.

Despite the bitter rupture and prospect of divisive court action, an agreement could still be worked out.

“We believe that ultimately this is going to be negotiated at the negotiating table,’’ NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. “They’ve decided to pursue another strategy and that is their choice. But we will be prepared to negotiate an agreement and get something done that is fair to the players and fair to the clubs.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com.

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