Progress toward a new NFL labor deal slowed Friday, when a federal appeals court gave the league a narrow victory, ruling that its lockout of players could continue. But the court left open the question of whether the NFL could be sued for antitrust violations.
According to one person briefed on negotiations, the timing of the court's opinion — issued in the morning — was "awful" and "not helpful" to the talks, unsettling them just as the sides hoped to finish discussions on the revenue split, the heart of the dispute.
The decision emboldened the hawks among both parties, the person said, inspiring some owners to want more concessions from players, and some on the players' side to want to press their case, with the prospect that the court could allow antitrust damages.
Talks ended early in the evening, while the NFL said work would continue over the weekend, with lawyers and staff drafting language for a potential agreement. Face-to-face negotiations resume Monday with lawyers and staff, although owners and players may not join until later in the week. The NFL has identified July 15 as a deadline to avoid canceling the Hall of Fame game, the first exhibition game, scheduled Aug. 7. The league would likely need at least a week, and perhaps two, after an agreement in principle is reached to have it entirely completed and approved. Only then would free agency be allowed to start.
Friday's talks were described as fragile, with the sides remaining close to completing work on the revenue split. The benefits for retired players and the rookie wage system — which is being resisted by many agents who make much of their money from negotiating lucrative rookie contracts — have emerged as bigger hang-ups to completing a deal.
"Still on track, but not moving as fast as expectations," the person said of negotiations.
The ruling vacated a preliminary injunction by a district court last spring that briefly lifted the lockout. The decision, by the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, was not surprising because the same three-judge panel earlier issued two delays of the injunction and had said during oral arguments in June that it would likely issue a ruling that would not entirely please either party.
Both sides had assumed the court would hold its decision with negotiations in advanced stages. They issued a joint statement, saying the ruling did not change their "mutual recognition that this matter must be resolved through negotiation.
"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," the statement said.
The opinion also sent back to the district court the question of whether the lockout applied to rookies and free agents.
William Gould, the former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board and now a professor at Stanford Law School, said he interpreted some of the language in the court's decision and its description of facts as signaling that it did not believe the NFL would have antitrust liability and that it would be difficult to win damages in an antitrust case.
"They didn't hold that, but you look at their language — the way they describe what happened," Gould said. "It is a big victory for them. They haven't swept the table, but it looks like they would."
Others thought the NFL's victory was not as complete.
"This is an immediate victory for the league but still leaves it at some antitrust risk — a perfect way for the court to give both sides additional incentive to settle and reach a new collective bargaining agreement," said Gary Roberts, dean of the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis who has been analyzing the lockout for the NFL Network.
There was also the question around the league Friday if the appeals court ruling might spur U.S. District Court Judge David Doty to soon announce his decision on damages in the so-called lockout insurance television contracts case. That decision is expected to award a significant amount of money to players, although the league would appeal it. Doty, like the Court of Appeals, was believed to be holding his decision while negotiations continued.
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