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NFL Owners Take Fight Over Lockout Order to Appeals Court

National Football League lawyers asked a U.S. appeals court to reverse a judge’s order directing them to end their player lockout.

Team owners blocked player access to coaching staffs, trainers and practice facilities on March 12 after collective bargaining talks collapsed. Players disavowed their union and sued the NFL for allegedly violating U.S. antitrust laws.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in St. Paul, Minnesota, ordered an end to the lockout on April 25, saying it would probably cause the players irreparable harm. The NFL won a temporary stay of Nelson’s order and wants a three-judge appellate panel in St. Louis to overturn it.

“This is a labor dispute, not an antitrust problem,” Paul D. Clement, a lawyer for the owners, told the panel today. When asked about Nelson’s finding on irreparable harm, he said, “We hear from some players saying, ‘this is the best summer I’ve had.”

The lawsuit runs counter to federal labor law and the dispute shouldn’t be decided in the courts, Clement said. NFL attorneys have argued that the issues should be resolved before the National Labor Relations Board.

Both sides are exempt from federal antitrust laws so long as they are engaged in collective bargaining. The players say talks had already failed before their decision to disband the union freed them to pursue antitrust litigation.

‘Perfectly Happy’

“The players did not want to be in the union anymore,” Theodore Olson, a lawyer for the players, told the court. “The players are perfectly happy with antitrust protection.”

Olson preceded Clement as U.S. Solicitor General, the federal government’s top litigator, under President George W. Bush.

The 32-team league, based in New York, is the richest U.S. pro sports league with annual revenue of about $9 billion. Players and owners dispute how to divide that money. They also disagree over a rookie salary cap, expanding the regular season to 18 games from 16 and health care.

Ten players, led by Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, sued the NFL on March 11 alleging that league owners engage in anticompetitive practices.

Several players, including plaintiff Osi Umenyiora of the New York Giants, Cullen Jenkins of the Green Bay Packers and Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers, attended today’s court hearing.

Confidential Talks

Players and team owners held talks during the lawsuit, mediated by U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan in Minneapolis, with the last publicly announced discussions on May 17. In a joint statement yesterday, the parties said they had been meeting confidentially with Boylan. They declined to reveal any additional details.

Those meetings, which involved Giants owner John Mara, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, took place over three days at a site near Chicago, the Associated Press reported, citing sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were secret.

In the appeal, players associations from the top U.S. baseball, basketball and hockey leagues filed a brief supporting the football players.

“The sound application of the antitrust laws in markets for professional athletes’ services is critical in all major sports leagues,” the associations said in a May 20 filing.

National Hockey League owners submitted a brief backing the NFL owners, asserting that under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, antitrust laws shouldn’t be used to interfere with the collective bargaining process.

The lower court case is Brady v. National Football League, 11-cv-639, U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota (St. Paul). The appellate case is Brady v. National Football League, 11-1898, 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (St. Louis).

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