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Court sides with NFL on lockout

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / May 17, 2011

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Any hopes the National Football League would resume business in the near future ended yesterday when the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals granted the league’s request for a stay pending appeal of the preliminary injunction that ended the lockout.

The earliest the league will resume business — including offseason practices and free agency — would be late June or early July because of the ruling out of Minneapolis.

The three-judge panel from the 8th Circuit, in a two-to-one decision, halted the District Court ruling of Judge Susan Richard Nelson that sided with NFL players, including plaintiffs Tom Brady and Logan Mankins from the Patriots, in ending the lockout.

The appellate court decision said the lockout remains in place until the NFL’s appeal can be decided on. Oral arguments on the expedited appeal will take place June 3 in St. Louis.

A decision is not expected for another 4-6 weeks. Whichever way the court decides, the NFL and the players still would have enough time to reach an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, start free agency, and open training camps on time in late July.

But that’s only if the losing side does not appeal to the entire 11-judge panel at the 8th Circuit, or to the US Supreme Court.

In the meantime, the NFL won its first battle in this legal fight — and it appears, for now, to be a big one.

The two judges who sided with the NFL — Steven M. Colloton and Duane Benton, who were appointed by President George W. Bush — strongly hinted that they ultimately will decide to overturn Nelson’s decision when the appeal is decided.

“In sum, we have serious doubts that the district court had jurisdiction to enjoin the League’s lockout, and accordingly conclude that the League has made a strong showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits,’’ the ruling read.

Colloton and Benton took several shots at Nelson’s rulings in their decision. Nelson was appointed by President Barack Obama.

On her declining to apply the Norris-LaGuardia Act: “The district court reasoned that this case does not involve or grow out of a labor dispute because the players no longer are represented by a union. We have considerable doubt about this interpretation . . . Our present view is that this interpretation of the Act is unlikely to prevail.’’

On Nelson’s view that the league would suffer no irreparable harm: “The district court gave little or no weight to the harm caused to the League by an injunction issued in the midst of an ongoing labor dispute over terms and conditions of employment . . . The court gave full weight to affidavit evidence submitted by the players, although that proof was untested by cross-examination at a hearing.’’

Judge Kermit E. Bye, in his dissenting opinion, backed up all of Nelson’s contentions. Bye was appointed by President Bill Clinton.

There’s little question the NFL now has momentum in the case. However, that’s unlikely to force the sides, which are currently in court-ordered mediation, to an agreement.

The NFL Players Association seemed unmoved by the court’s decision in a statement.

“The NFL’s request for a stay of the lockout that was granted today means no football,’’ the statement read. “The players are in mediation and are working to try to save the 2011 season. The court will hear the full appeal on June 3.’’

The NFL continued its party line of negotiation over litigation.

“It is now time to devote all of our energy to reaching a comprehensive agreement that will improve the game for the benefit of current and retired players, teams, and, most importantly, the fans,’’ the NFL said in a statement.

“This litigation has taken the parties away from the negotiating table where these issues should be resolved. We remain confident that the appellate court will determine that this is a labor dispute that should be governed by federal labor law. But the league and players, without further delay, should control their own destiny and decide the future of the NFL together through negotiation.’’

The next big domino to fall will be the damages awarded by District Court Judge David S. Doty in the television case. He is deciding the fate of $4 billion in revenue he earlier ruled was unfairly gained by the NFL in the last round of contract talks with the networks. The players maintain the league is using that money as lockout insurance, and have asked for it to be put in escrow and for $707 million in damages. Doty long has been a thorn in the side of the NFL and is from the same district as Nelson.

It would not be a surprise to see him come down heavily on the league, but that decision also will be appealed to the 8th Circuit. The players have won monetary cases there, most notably Michael Vick’s signing bonus case in 2008.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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