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Decision week for NFL's labor future

Roger Goodell

Roger Goodell Photo Credit: Getty Images

The NFL heads into Armageddon this week.

Unless a final, mediated bargaining session (under way in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday) produces a new collective bargaining agreement — or enough progress for both sides to agree to stop the clock — the league and its players will undoubtedly allow a worst-case scenario to play out: The owners will vote today to lock out the players come 12:01 a.m. Friday, and the players will respond with an attempt to decertify the NFL Players Association as their union.

“It looks like we’re headed for a legal battle between the PA and NFL, and we’re quickly going to leave the negotiating table and head for the courtroom,” said Gabe Feldman, the director of Tulane University’s sports law program. “It’s going to be decertification versus lockout.”

It is an even worse scenario than the one that happened in 1989, the last time a work stoppage menaced the league. Back then, the union was allowed to decertify. Football was played, even though a state of war existed between the owners and players for four years — until Reggie White’s antitrust suit in 1993 challenged the freedom-limiting Plan B free agency and forced an agreement that included a more liberal free agent system.

“The deal doesn’t get done while they’re firing these economic weapons. The deal gets done once the dust has settled and we see which side is left with more leverage,” said Feldman. “It could take a while for the courts to decide which economic weapon trumps.”

The question this week is: If a worst-case scenario does happen, what will the following weeks (and perhaps months) look like for the players? Here are three scenarios that address those issues. Hint: None of of them are pretty.

No work

If the owners vote to lock out and District Court Judge David S. Doty allows decertification, all player-team relationships would stop. “It’s not clear what will happen when a group of owners tries to lock out a group of employees who have decertified their union,” Feldman said. “We don’t know the answer to that question, and I think until we get that answer, we’re probably not going to get an agreement.” Players such as Mathias Kiwanuka, who is rehabbing a herniated disc under the auspices of the Giants’ training staff, would have to find a private facility to continue. There would be no offseason conditioning programs or minicamps, or possibly training camp. All player salaries and all medical and pension benefits would be suspended. Antonio Cromartie said a few weeks ago that he had already taken out a personal medical plan for his eight children in preparation for this eventuality. Also, the extra money that comes from the split of NFL merchandising such as T-shirts and uniforms would vanish. In addition to lost practice time, communications with coaches would be prohibited, and a lesser brand of football would be expected if the situation lasts through the offseason, into training camp and beyond. The players would gain tremendous bargaining power as they wage individual and class action antitrust suits that pay treble damages. But keep in mind that individual lawsuits are expensive. A class action suit, such as the one that stemmed from a group of smaller player-friendly decisions in ’89 — could cost the owners billions if not settled. Still, the owners have a great war chest in the $4 billion from guaranteed TV contracts they’ll reap. The draft would go on as scheduled, and trades of players under contract could be made, but free agency would be put on hold. This is the most likely scenario.

Forced work

If Doty sides with the players and allows decertification, there could still be a football season if the owners move off their lockout plans. This scenario would most certainly hurt and antagonize the players, as the league would be free to enforce what is called the “last and best offer.” This is what happened in 1989. The NFL was allowed to enforce its own rules as contained in its final offer to the NFLPA. In return, the players had the right to sue the NFL for antitrust violations, since decertification eliminated the NFLPA as a collective bargaining agent. The players played the next four seasons dancing to the owners’ tune, and numerous players sued. As in our first scenario, the players could challenge subjects such as restricted free agency, the salary cap and the franchise and transition tags.

No work II: Strike

If the owners decide to implement their “last, best offer” and Doty denies decertification, the players could strike. Although the immediate effects would resemble a lockout, this would be a public relations nightmare for the players because it would be their decision to walk out after crying “Let us play!” since the owners opted out of the current CBA in 2006. A lot of people think the players get paid too much already. This would paint them as spoiled and greedy, making this the least likely scenario.

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