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For NFL, big week looms

Court sides with owners on lockout; talks continue

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / July 9, 2011

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A labor agreement between the National Football League and its players will have to wait until at least next week after a tumultuous day of negotiations yesterday in New York ended without a deal.

However, sources on both sides said a deal is still possible - July 15 looms as the date to save the entire preseason - even after a wrench was thrown into the process yesterday morning.

The 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals delivered its long-awaited ruling on the preliminary injunction blocking the lockout. The court, by a 2-1 decision, sided with the owners in allowing the lockout to continue, vacating the Minnesota district court’s April 25 ruling.

The three-judge panel validated the NFL’s legal argument that the Norris-LaGuardia Act prohibited the courts from getting involved in a labor dispute. And it is a labor dispute, even after the NFL Players Association decertified as a union.

“The league and the players’ union were parties to a collective bargaining agreement for almost eighteen years prior to March 2011,’’ the majority said in its opinion. “They were engaged in collective bargaining over terms and conditions of employment for approximately two years . . . Then, on a single day, just hours before the CBA’s expiration, the union discontinued collective bar gaining and disclaimed its status . . . ’’

“Whatever the effect of the union’s disclaimer on the league’s immunity from antitrust liability, the labor dispute did not suddenly disappear just because the players elected to pursue the dispute through antitrust litigation rather than collective bargaining.’’

But it was far from a resounding victory for the owners.

The court said that players not under contract - free agents and rookies - could not be locked out if district court Judge Susan Nelson held a hearing on the matter. The players could file that expedited hearing if a new collective bargaining agreement is not in sight. But that could take at least a month to run its course.

The ruling from the 8th Circuit Court also kept the antitrust suit filed by the players, Brady v. NFL, hovering over negotiations.

Still, for the players to win an antitrust case against the league - and the triple damages it would bring - it would take two or three years and definitely the loss of this NFL season.

That’s why it was promising to see the owners and players release a joint statement that said the court’s decision would not affect negotiations.

“While we respect the court’s decision, today’s ruling does not change our mutual recognition that this matter must be resolved through negotiation,’’ the statement said. “We are committed to our current discussions and reaching a fair agreement that will benefit all parties for years to come, and allow for a full 2011 season.’’

It remains to be seen how the ruling affects negotiations. It gave hardliners reason to press their cause.

When it comes to the toughest issues in this fight - the revenue split, the rookie wage scale, and retirement benefits - will the owners be willing to come off their numbers to get a deal done? Will they acquiesce on their desire to have right of first refusal on three players on each team who would otherwise be unrestricted free agents once free agency begins?

Will the players be able to ward off those who want to be known as the people who won an antitrust case against the NFL and the windfall of money it would represent?

For now, it appears the moderates in the negotiating room are still directing both sides toward a deal. Among those is Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has been instrumental in the progress.

Face-to-face talks are set to resume Monday with the legal teams, followed by each set of negotiators. Both sides will be up against a real deadline. If the lockout goes past July 15, the preseason and the estimated $200 million per week it generates for both sides would be in jeopardy. And once money is lost, a deal becomes more complicated.

The talks next week are not expected to include Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, who deftly moderated the negotiating sessions the past five weeks. He is set to start vacation today.

“We’re going to break for the weekend, get back to work next week. We continue to work hard to get something done,’’ NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith told the Associated Press. “I know our fans want us to get something done as quickly as possible.’’

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

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