NFL Labor: Settlement Not Close

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Brees and the players are looking to an April 6 Court Date.

Brees and the players are looking to an April 6 Court Date.

By Ralph Vacchiano

The NFL schedule for the 2011 season is still supposed to be released some time in mid-April. At the moment, though, there’s only one thing on the slate that really matters: An April 6 court date in Minneapolis.

It’s sad and unfortunate that it’s come to this, but that’s where we are with the NFL labor mess that imploded on March 11 and is now headed toward a possibly lengthy and likely ugly court fight. The NFL Players Association decertified as a union. The NFL owners followed suit by locking out the players.

There will be injunctions and motions and hearings galore before the next ball is snapped on an NFL field. The legalese will be as mind-boggling to outsiders as the terminology in the Green Bay Packers’ playbook. All that fans know for sure is that there will be no NFL football for a while because the owners and players couldn’t figure out how to divide $9 billion up.

“Regrettably, the parties haven’t achieved an overall agreement or been able to resolve strongly held competing views that separate them on core issues,” said federal mediator George Cohen after the labor talks blew up. “After reviewing the situation, it is the considered judgment of yours truly that no constructive purpose would be served by requesting them to continue mediation at this time.”

That’s the most important, rhetoric-free statement about how far the sides are from reaching an actual agreement. Everything else the two sides have said has been nothing but finger-pointing. Saints quarterback Drew Brees says the owners’ attempts to negotiate was “all a front, all a show, with no real intent to get a deal done.” Giants co-owner John Mara countered that the NFLPA wasn’t serious, that they negotiated “like they were in a hurry to get out of there on Friday and get into a Minneapolis courtroom.”

The result of nearly three weeks of mediation was pretty much nothing. They inched closer on some key issues — like a rookie wage scale, no 18-game season, and the all-important revenue split — but not nearly close enough considering they’ve been at this for two years.

That’s why George Atallah, the union spokesman, agreed with Cohen.

“The perception is that we were really, really close,” he said a few days after talks imploded. “The reality is: We really, really weren’t.”

So where does the NFL go from here? And is it possible there won’t be a 2011 season?

The answer, at this point, is they go slowly into uncharted waters. And sadly, anything is possible.

THE NEXT STEPS (in fluent legalese … or something close)

The April 6 showdown is a big one. Now that the union has decertified, it has filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL — famously titled Brady v. NFL with nine NFL players and one college player as co-plaintiffs in the class-action suit. The biggest part of that suit is a request for an injunction that would block the lockout. The union needed to decertify — essentially reorganize as a “professional trade association” — to file that suit.

Chances are a decision in that suit won’t come immediately. Legal experts say it could be 2-4 weeks before Judge Susan Nelson delivers her decision. There is also the possibility — or likelihood — of an appeal after she does.

In other words, we might not know which way any of this is going until after the April 28-30 draft.

If the lockout-blocking injunction is granted, the NFL can actually resume, using the 2010 CBA rules — no salary cap or floor, six years to unrestricted free agency, etc. If it’s not, the players will be locked out indefinitely, meaning they’ll likely be forced to reform as a union and restart negotiations.

There’s also another wrinkle: The NFL has filed papers with the National Labor Relations Board trying to block the NFLPA’s effort to decertify. They claim it’s a “sham” based on the correct assumption that the NFLPA still exists and will eventually re-certify when this mess is over. If the NLRB sides with the owners, then they have no legal right to file a lockout-blocking injunction, which would also mean the lockout remains in effect.

WHAT TO EXPECT (in plain English)

Both sides seem to agree on one thing, at least privately: The only way this is going to get settled is to resume negotiations. Nobody really thinks Brady v. NFL will ever make a long and expensive trip through the legal system. The presence of it is simply about blocking the lockout and gaining leverage.

After April 6, when the lockout is either blocked or not, things will be a lot clearer. But it still seems to be most likely that the NFL will eventually temporarily re-open under the 2010 CBA rules while the two sides get together in a room somewhere and try to hammer out an agreement.

Could it last longer? Sure. There could be appeals or the lockout could be upheld. And yes, the season — or at least the start of it — could be in danger if the two sides dig in, instead of trying to find a middle ground.

Most people don’t think it will get that far. The players don’t want to lose the paychecks that start in September. The owners don’t want to lose the revenue from TV deals and games, etc. There’s too much money at stake for this to be much more than a painful offseason squabble.

At least, that’s what everyone hopes.

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<p> Athlon's Ralph Vacchiano updates the NFL CBA progress.</p>