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NFL's labor future on the brink this week

Roger Godell

Roger Godell

The NFL heads into Armageddon this week.

Unless a final, mediated bargaining session (under way this week) produces a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) — 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. on 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 in 1989, when the union was decertified and a potential work stoppage menaced the league until a new was signed in 1993.

“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,” Feldman said. “It could take a while for the courts to decide which economic weapon trumps.”

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

1. No work: Lockout

This is the most likely scenario: 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 defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, who is rehabbing a herniated disc with 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. Also, the extra money that comes from the split of NFL merchandising such as T-shirts and uniforms would vanish.

The players would gain tremendous bargaining power as they wage individual and class action antitrust suits that pay treble damages. 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. Moreover, a ruling by Doty yesterday means the owners won’t have immediate access to $4 billion in guaranteed TV contracts. The draft would go on, as would trades of players under contract, but free agency would be put on hold.

2. Forced work

If Doty sides with the players and allows decertification, there could still be a football season if the owners move away from 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, 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 on issues such as restricted free agency, the salary cap, and the franchise and transition tags.

3. No work: 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!” ever 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 it the least likely scenario.

Max J. Dickstein contributed to this report.


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