John P. Hancock Jr. has been involved with close to 400 labor negotiations and has seen plenty of difficult situations resolved after intensive negotiations. But the 62-year-old labor lawyer hasn't seen anything quite like what's going on with the NFL and its seemingly intractable dispute with the players.
"I've done this for almost 40 years, and I've never heard of a union in the middle of a negotiation decertifying itself," said Hancock, who works for the Butzel Long law firm in Detroit. "Now it's happened twice with the players' union. In the real world, if you don't have a union, you don't have a contract. I've just never heard of it as a bargaining ploy."
But Hancock believes both sides are at a point at which it might be advantageous to work out a deal that would end the lockout. The NFL and player representatives are set to resume federally mediated talks in Minnesota Monday after a monthlong recess was ordered by U.S. Judge Magistrate Arthur Boylan, who is overseeing the talks.
"I think you'll see some serious negotiations," Hancock said. "The time to try to negotiate is when both sides still have a chance before either side gets some major leverage."
That leverage could come in the next few weeks because the NFL's appeal of an injunction to lift the lockout will be heard by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on June 3 in St. Louis. If the league wins the appeal, the lockout is likely to continue for several more weeks or perhaps months. If the players win, the NFL will resume operations, likely by July.
Hancock cautions that if either side is willing to gamble on the outcome of the appeal -- and that appears to be the case at the moment -- the upcoming talks could fizzle.
"The owners may think, 'Why go for a field goal and a tie when you can go for a touchdown and a win and not go into overtime?' " he said. "The owners are looking at a legal issue that they don't ever want to face again, and that's decertification by the union."
It doesn't help that the rhetoric remains high. For instance, in a Friday interview on WFAN's Boomer & Carton show, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said, "Right now, [the players] don't want to lay down and be forced to take a deal. They don't believe that it's fair. I can tell you that they resent being lied to. They resent being tricked. They resent the fact that the league has been found now twice to have violated the law."
University of Pennsylvania law professor Andrew Brandt, a former Packers front-office executive, believes the resumption of mediated talks may not lead to any substantial progress because of the appeals court hearing.
"My sense is Judge Boylan has done and will do a good job in encouraging both sides to use the time productively toward resolving differences," he said. "However, the reality is that the timing of this mediation does not lend well to concessions from either side. I just think that they will do enough to make Boylan feel that they are engaged and active while being reluctant to make any substantive moves with June 3rd around the corner."
Will there be football in 2011?
"I predict we're going to have football this season," Hancock said. "It's only a question of when. It might be a situation where we miss some games, but I do think there will be a season."