NEW YORK — Delay of game might turn into delay of season for the NFL.
Not only does the most recent court decision upholding the validity of the owners' lockout of the players mean a likely game of wait-and-see for the next several weeks — more than ever, it puts the opening of training camps in jeopardy. And, beyond that, preseason games.
And, beyond that, perish the thought, even the games that count.
Make no mistake, the 2-1 decision Monday by an 8th Circuit Court appeals panel to maintain the lockout until the league's full appeal is heard beginning June 3 is a huge victory for the owners. The wording in that ruling by the majority strongly favored the NFL's argument; the judges indicated they find a great deal of merit in the NFL's claim that lifting the lockout without a new contract with the players would cause chaos and be harmful to the sport.
"I think this decision says the NFL really controls the game board here," said Robert Boland, professor of sports management at New York University's Tisch Center. "It is a big turn of fortune because the NFL controls the timing, they can control the clock. This allows the owners to put greater pressure on the players. If the injunction had gone into effect, it would have put the players in control of the game of leverage."
Instead, the players are in "uncharted territory," Boland said.
"The players don't have a lot of options now," he added. "Certainly there is enough litigation remaining and they could win. They could have a game changer from their case in front of the NLRB, but there's no indication when a decision might come there.
So their best bet is keep negotiating."
Others will argue that the latest victory for the owners is not a fumble recovery deep in the players' territory. The players still believe they can prove in court that the lockout is illegal. But after several wins for them — and with another expected soon from Judge David Doty on what to do with TV money promised to the league even if no games are played — Monday was a hard hit for the NFLPA.
"The law is on the players' side if they can survive," said agent/attorney Ralph Cindrich, who has been through every labor dispute between players and owners dating back to the 1970s and the NFLPA's infancy. "This is not a game changer for the owners, but it is a serious gain. The TV revenue (decision) in Judge Doty's courtroom is critical now."
If Doty awards the players the $707 million in damages they are seeking, as well as making the rest of the estimated $4 billion from the networks unavailable to the NFL, it would be a setback for the owners. But they could argue that because the NFLPA decertified as a union when CBA talks collapsed in March, it is not entitled to those damages.
Hardly anyone puts much stock in the court-ordered mediation sessions that have been adjourned until next month's appeal is heard. As long as the players are locked out and the NFL appears in control in the courts, serious negotiations are a long shot.
"Essentially the NFL does want and need to play, but there's really no incentive from a financial and technical perspective to rush that," Boland said. "They can allow the players to come back to them."
That could be in the form of a group of dissident players dissatisfied with the lack of progress. Or perhaps even with another group certifying itself as the players' union — with enough players' approval — to negotiate a new CBA.
Plus, as Boland notes, the sides aren't exactly getting more comfortable with each other when it comes to negotiating.
"Both sides I don't think were resolute in their opposition to each other at the outset," Boland said, "but I think they have come to be much further apart. Basically each side is waiting for the other to crack."
"Yes, the season could be very much affected by this," he added. "Games could be lost."
Which hurts the sport more than anything. Even if a deal is struck late this summer, the quality of performance without the proper prep time will be damaged. Injuries could be more prevalent if eventually there's a rush to get back to work.
As Cindrich noted, there's already "irreparable harm" to the rookie free agents "whose talent will never be realized because they will never have that fair shot" of making the NFL.
"For some (veterans), it is likely their last shot," Cindrich added. "Tell me how you put a dollar sign on that. You can't."