National Football League team owners must end their month-old player lockout, a federal judge ruled, prompting the owners to move immediately to appeal.
The league yesterday asked U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in St. Paul, Minnesota, for an order delaying her ruling pending action by a U.S. Court of Appeals.
Nelson issued the order in a suit filed by 10 players led by Super Bowl winning quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. They accused the league of violating federal antitrust law.
“The judge has clearly ruled the lockout is illegal,” said Anthony Sabino, a professor of law at St. John’s University in New York who practices antitrust law. “Even if she stays her order pending appeal, the owners have lost significant ground, and they are now motivated to resume talks.”
Sabino, who isn’t involved in the NFL litigation, said an appeals court reversal is unlikely because an injunction is largely within the discretion of a judge based on findings of fact.
The judge said in granting a preliminary injunction that the players established the necessary “fair chance” of final success in the case.
The NFL declared a labor lockout on March 12 after talks to create a new collective bargaining agreement collapsed and the players’ association said it no longer would act as a union.
Areas of Conflict
The two sides disagreed on the formula by which the New York-based, 32-team league and its players would divide about $9 billion in annual revenue, extension of the season from 16 to 18 games, a rookie salary cap and health care for players.
During a lockout, players aren’t paid and teams can’t practice, sign new players or make trades.
“We believe that federal law bars injunctions in labor disputes,” Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. “We are confident that the Eighth Circuit will agree.” That appeals court, whose area includes Minnesota, is based in St. Louis, Missouri, and also hears cases in St. Paul. The league filed a notice of appeal with the court.
Aiello said the league believes the dispute will inevitably end with a collective bargaining agreement.
“We can reach a fair agreement only if we continue negotiations toward that goal,” he said.
Lawyers for the NFL’s owners and players, at Nelson’s urging, engaged in four days of court-assisted talks mediated by U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan in Minneapolis. The negotiations are scheduled to resume on May 16.
“The players want to play,” James W. Quinn, a lawyer for the athletes, said in a phone interview. “Whether this will move the other side to a place of rationality, who knows?”
The league’s quick move to appeal was unsurprising, he said. “We expected that.”
Nelson today ordered the players’ attorneys to submit written arguments opposing the owners’ requested stay of her order by 9 a.m. St. Paul time tomorrow. She will rule based on papers before her, according to an entry in the court’s docket.
The NFL will ask the appeals court to consider its challenge on an expedited basis, it said yesterday in a court filing.
Arguing for delayed enforcement of the court order, the league said that without it “the clubs would be forced to choose between the irreparable harm of unrestricted free agency or the irreparable harm of more treble damages lawsuits.”
If Lockout Ends
With the lockout lifted, the NFL’s offseason would officially begin after being on hold since March.
Players would resume getting paid, and teams could hold practices, sign players and make trades. About 500 players would become free agents, clearing them to pursue jobs with the teams of their choosing.
The NFL’s draft of college players, which begins April 28, is the only league activity scheduled during the lockout.
NFL training camps usually open in July and August. The regular season is scheduled to begin Sept. 8. Some of the approximately 2,500 players who will compete for regular season roster spots appeared at their teams’ practice facilities today.
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark appeared at his team’s practice facility at the University of Pittsburgh.
While he wasn’t permitted to work out, Clark told the Walt Disney Co.-owned all-sports ESPN cable-television network that he’d met with head coach Mike Tomlin and team president Art Rooney II.
“We definitely have been treated with courtesy,” Clark said in a telephone interview broadcast by ESPN. “I wasn’t expecting anything else from the brass of the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
New York Jets offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, who has a $750,000 bonus in his contract that’s tied to offseason workouts, reported to the team facility in Florham Park, New Jersey, the Star-Ledger of Newark reported.
Jets players Brandon Moore, Mike DeVito, Jerricho Cotchery, Bart Scott and David Harris also were granted access, though they weren’t able to use facilities such as the weight room, training room, hot and cold tubs, the paper said.
“It’s kind of weird to not be able to have access to a facility like you normally do,” Moore told the Star-Ledger. “To not speak to anybody, everybody’s hiding out, not available, nobody’s walking the halls. It’s awkward that it’s come to this.”
The NFL instructed teams to allow players access to facilities today and recommended they keep weight rooms and other training areas closed, its spokesman, Aiello, said today in an e-mailed statement.
“We are going to proceed in an orderly way that is fair to the teams and players and complies with court orders,” he said. “Players are being treated with courtesy and respect at club facilities. We do not believe it is appropriate for football activities to take place until there are further rulings from the court.”
The case is Brady v. NFL, 0:11-cv-00639, U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota (St. Paul).