MINNEAPOLIS — The NFL and its players swapped another set of accusatory court filings Wednesday, arguing whether the now-lifted lockout should be put back in place even as teams get ready for one of the most unusual drafts in history.
The players urged U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson to deny the league’s request to essentially restore the lockout, arguing that their careers were at stake.
Nelson was weighing a request from the owners for a stay, which means the injunction she issued to stop the 45-day lockout on Monday would be frozen during an appeals process that is expected to stretch into the summer and threaten the 2011 season.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, during a predraft event in New York, said he wasn’t worried about the state of confusion tarnishing the league’s image but stressed his desire to “remove” the uncertainty.
“It’s one of the things I don’t think is healthy for the players, the clubs and most importantly our fans,” he said.
Attorneys for the players dismissed the NFL’s argument that it risks either violating antitrust laws by coming up with new league rules without a collective bargaining agreement in place or harming its competitive balance by allowing a potential free agency free-for-all.
“If the NFL defendants are faced with a dilemma, they put themselves in that position by repeatedly imposing rules and restrictions that violate the antitrust laws,” the attorneys wrote. “Any alleged predicament is of their own making.”
The solution, the players argued, is to simply implement a system that does not violate antitrust laws.
The NFL, in turn, accused the players of going way too far with an overly “sweeping” bid to get Nelson to clarify her order lifting the lockout.
The league pointed to a two-page form the players sent to Nelson, complete with blank lines for the judge to fill out, in which teams would be barred for a year from a lockout or any “contract, combination, conspiracy, boycott, concerted conduct or collective agreement” that went against player contracts.
The players improperly want to get Nelson to consider the antitrust claims, which are laid out in a still-pending lawsuit that hasn’t yet been aired in court, the league said. And the players’ plan would have even barred the draft that begins Thursday night without free agency or other familiar hallmarks.
“Aside from being expressly beyond the scope of the opinion, these are all rules to which the NFLPA had previously agreed,” the league said.
If Nelson grants the league’s request to put the lockout back in place, players want the NFL to post a $1 billion bond, roughly 25 percent of player compensation last year.
That got the NFL’s attention.
“Of course, there is no monetary judgment here that needs securing,” the league said in a court filing it sought special permission from Nelson to submit. “Moreover, there has been and could be no credible showing of a risk of insolvency. ... Indeed, the plaintiffs do not suggest that they have the slightest doubt of the league’s ability to pay the players, or that this Court should have any doubt.”
If the NFL fails to get Nelson to put her order on hold, it will ask the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis for the same thing. The owners are also asking the appeals court, viewed as a more friendly venue to the league than the federal courts in Minnesota, to overturn Nelson’s decision.
Repeatedly in Wednesday’s filing, the players took an argument the league has made and turned it into their own. They referred to Goodell’s expression of concern that the longer the uncertainty around the 2011 season continues, the worse it is for everyone involved.
The players said teams won’t be harmed if the judge denies the NFL motion for a stay, meaning the league would be back in business.
“This is the only way to preserve the 2011 season announced by the NFL, given the need to sign free agents, to complete the NFL draft and sign drafted players, to plan and to hold training camp, and to plan for the season itself,” the players wrote. “Denying a stay will enable the NFL defendants to go back to operating their multibillion-dollar business and making enormous amounts of money, as they did previously.”
Matthew Cantor, an antitrust specialist with Constantine Cannon in New York, said he sees the NFL’s dilemma as legitimate.
“I think they are between a rock and a hard place, and that’s one of the problems with allowing this antitrust suit to continue, rather than collectively bargaining,” he said.
Cantor said he thinks talks will go forward even with the court matters pending. Court-ordered mediation is scheduled to resume May 16.
“I think anything is possible,” Cantor said. “You’re talking about billions of bucks, where everybody at the end of the day makes out very nicely. It would really defy economic logic for them not to go forward with the 2011 season.”
Goodell said the surest way for the league to operate without running afoul of antitrust laws is to get back to bargaining with the players, who broke up their union March 11.
“That’s how we’ve been successful. That’s how other leagues have been successful, and it should continue that way,” Goodell said.
All of this played out while most players again stayed away from team headquarters, working out on their own as the NFL’s first work stoppage since 1987 plays out in court. Two Washington Redskins players showed up at their facility, another rather fruitless visit.
“What we’re looking for is a little clarity as far as what the rules are, so we can operate on the same page. So we’ll just have towait and see what those rules are,” coach Mike Shanahan said.
Detroit Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said he hadn’t heard about any players showing up at Lions Park.
“Until guys know they can get some work done at that facility, they’re just going to work out on their own and take a wait-and-see approach,” he said.