In the game of chicken the NFL and the NFLPA have played since the CBA expired in early March and the owners declared a lockout, the participants, fans and the media have all learned to assume nothing.
Most, myself included, expected Judge Susan Nelson of the U.S. District Court to rule in favor of the players in their preliminary injunction attempt to lift the lockout as part of the Brady v. NFL case. What was also expected was a stay from Judge Nelson to hold the lockout in place until an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit could be filed by the NFL.
So, Judge Nelson’s ruling to lift the lockout immediately, but to not issue a stay of her order until the NFL’s appeal could be heard has thrown the league into chaos on several points, some of which are not entirely clear to legal analysts specializing in sports law in the first hours following the issue of the order.
First, here is Judge Nelson’s full 89-page order issued Monday, April 25.
The NFLPA issued a statement Monday night:
Re: Brady, et al. v. NFL
We are class counsel along with Dewey LeBoeuf on behalf of the 10 named plaintiffs in the Brady lawsuit as well as the 1800 members of the soon to be Brady class. We are pleased with the ruling granting the plaintiffs preliminary injunction to lift the NFL owners’ illegal lockout issued this afternoon by Judge Susan Richard Nelson. We believe that this 89-page well-reasoned decision is totally consistent with prior precedent, governing caselaw as well as administrative rulings on all the issues raised by the NFL Defendants. We are confident that this ruling will withstand any appeals.
De Smith, co-class counsel and Executive Director of the NFLPA said; “I’m happy for our players and for our fans. Today, those who love football are the winners.”
In addition, plaintiff Osi Umenyiora stated: “Today’s ruling is a win for the players and for the fans that want to see a full NFL season in 2011. The lockout is bad for everyone and players will continue to fight it. We hope that this will bring us one step closer to playing the game we love.”
– James W. Quinn, Class Counsel
The NFL also issued a statement following the order:
We will promptly seek a stay from Judge Nelson pending an expedited appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. We believe that federal law bars injunctions in labor disputes. We are confident that the Eighth Circuit will agree. But we also believe that this dispute will inevitably end with a collective bargaining agreement, which would be in the best interests of players, clubs and fans. We can reach a fair agreement only if we continue negotiations toward that goal.
The league, according to SI.com’s Peter King has filed two motions with Nelson’s court: a motion of clarification, seeking more info on the practical implications of the ruling, and a motion to stay the ruling while the Eighth Circuit hears the NFL’s appeal.
There are three possible outcomes, according to King. One, a stay which would keep the lockout in place until the Circuit Court hears and rules; two, no stay and an order to begin the 2011 NFL league year at her discretion; and three, passing the decision of a stay to the Eighth Circuit, which could take about a week to decide.
Judge Nelson’s order has set the following in motion:
The NFLPA via an email, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, advised players of their legal right to report to work at club facilities on Tuesday, April 26. It is unclear how many team player reps are telling players to report. Some like the Lions’ Kyle Vanden Bosch, have told players not to report for a day until the dust settles, while the Steelers’ rep Ryan Clark is telling teammates to report to work, according to ProFootballTalk.com.
Late Monday, according to Schefter, the NFL Management Council has told teams to let players into buildings on Tuesday, but also recommended keeping weight rooms closed and to have security in place to avoid any potential confrontations or photo opportunities for the media.
That advisement from the Management Council will avoid an awkward situation where team security directors, which assist players during normal labor times, would have been the ones turning the players away at the facilities or changing access codes the players use in some cities to access parking and the facilities.
ProFootballTalk.com is reporting that coaches have been told not to be in contact with players until the league has had a chance to seek a stay of Judge Nelson’s order.
Even if the league year is ordered to begin, there is plenty of uncertainty of if the previous CBA would apply going forward. Teams will also have some minefields in antitrust law to navigate, according to sports law professor Michael McCann in SI.com.
In the same article, McCann says the NFL’s appeal will hinge on two points: lack of jurisdiction by Judge Nelson because the National Labor Relations Board is yet to rule on the legality of the NFLPA’s decertification order and lack of irreparable harm to the players.
The league’s lawyers, led by David Boies, made those arguments in front of Judge Nelson in preparation for their appeal to the Eighth Circuit.
According to ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson, the owners may try to impose new work rules, or try to negotiate a new deal with the players, or try to do both.
Andrew Brandt of NationalFootballPost.com says that there is plenty that could still happen in the wake of Judge Nelson’s decision.
The league also faces a mid-May hearing in front of Judge David Doty as he will rule on potential award damages in the lawsuit filed by the players over the owners’ current television contracts. Those contracts would have provided a substantial “war chest” in a lockout. Judge Doty ruled for the players in March, and he will decide on those damages and if there should be an injunction on the TV contracts.
One major question also looms over the NFL Draft to be held over three days later this week. Teams were previously told that the only trades that could take place were ones involving draft picks in the 2011 and future drafts only. With a lifting of the lockout, no one is sure whether deals can be made involving current roster players under contract (for instance, Eagles QB Kevin Kolb).
The next week or so will be unique in NFL history on many levels. In any case, with less than three days before the 2011 NFL Draft, the chaos potential is very high for a league used to order in conducting its business off the field.