Court Backs NFL, Rules Lockout is Legal

Players sacked on the owners’ 5-yard line

In what could prove to be a fatal blow to the 2011-12 NFL season, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday vacated a lower court’s ruling on the league’s 115-day lockout.

In a 2-1 ruling, with Judge Kermit Bye dissenting, the court overturned the April 25 preliminary injunction granted by a U.S. district court, thereby establishing that the lockout is legal. “We conclude that the injunction did not conform to the provisions of the Norris-LaGuardia Act…and we therefore vacate the district court’s order,” wrote Judge Steven Colloton in the nut graf of the court’s 54-page decision.

In the view of the court, the players doomed their cause the moment they agreed to dissolve the union—a move the league’s counsel characterized as a “sham.” Under today’s ruling, the conflict between the NFL and the players “ceased to be a ‘labor dispute’ when the NFLPA terminated its status as a union.”

The ruling essentially strips any negotiating leverage the NFL players had as they inched closer toward hashing out a new collective bargaining agreement with the owners. In a joint statement issued shortly after the ruling, the NFL and NFLPA vowed to stay the course.

“While we respect the court’s decision, today’s ruling does not change our mutual recognition that this matter must be resolved through negotiation,” the statement read. “We are committed to our current discussions and reaching a fair agreement that will benefit all parties for years to come, and allow for a full 2011 season.”

On Thursday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith spent 12 hours at the table, where they reportedly came closer to reaching an accord on the revenue-splitting issue.

At the heart of Goodell’s offer is a simplified 48-52 split that also removes the $1 billion “expense credit” from the equation.

While both sides appear to be nearing a resolution on the $9.3 billion question, they remain worlds apart on the question of free agency. The players are lobbying for a class-action model for settling free agency grievances, while owners want to adhere to a strict arbitration system with no judicial oversight.

The court’s decision could undo the weeks of progress made in the talks between the two combatants, as the dissenting owners will smell blood in the water. It’s likely that Goodell will work to bring the smaller-market owners in line for the greater good of the league.

Approval from 24 of the 32 franchise owners is needed in order to reach a final agreement.

The lone dissenter on the three-judge panel, Bye, last month urged both parties to work out a resolution, suggesting that neither side would be thrilled with the court’s ruling. The warning did seem to light a fire under the litigants; in the past several weeks, the tough talk and chest beating that played as a counterpoint to the early negotiations gave way to a more cooperative dialogue.

Before the ruling, many NFL media partners expressed hope that the new CBA would be signed on or before July 15, thereby salvaging the league’s training camp and pre-season schedule.

The first pre-season scrimmage is scheduled for August 7.