WASHINGTON » Unable to decide how to divvy up $9 billion a year, NFL owners and players put the country’s most popular sport in limbo yesterday by breaking off labor negotiations hours before their contract expired. The union decertified; the league imposed a lockout.
Ten players, including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, sued the owners in federal court in Minneapolis. Then, at midnight Eastern time, the owners locked out the players – signaling the NFL’s first work stoppage since 1987.
"We are locked out," union president and former player Kevin Mawae wrote in a text message to the Associated Press. "We were informed today that players are no longer welcome at team facilities."
Despite two extensions to the collective bargaining agreement during 16 days of talks overseen by a federal mediator – and previous months of stop-and-start negotiating – the sides could not agree on a new deal. Now they will be adversaries in court: The players already requested an injunction to block a lockout, even before one was in place.
As was clear all along, the dispute came down to money. In the end, it appeared the sides were about $185 million apart on how much owners should get up front each season for certain operating expenses before splitting the rest of the revenues with players.
It could take a month for there to be a ruling on the union’s injunction request.
The antitrust suit – forever to be known as Brady et al vs. National Football League et al – attacked the league’s policies on the draft, salary cap and free-agent restrictions such as franchise-player tags.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS
The NFL Players Association decertified yesterday and NFL owners locked players out. Here’s what that means:
Q: Can the NFLPA collectively bargain on behalf of the players?
A: No. No longer a union, it now becomes a trade association. It can’t fight fines or suspensions or file grievances.
Q: How does decertifying help the players?
A: By decertifying, players can – and did yesterday – file an antitrust suit and request an injunction that would force the league to continue operating fully. In simplest terms, by decertifying, players hope to keep professional football in business under terms they like.
Q: Why decertify now?
A: First, the CBA barred the players from filing antitrust lawsuits against the league for six months after the deal expired. Second, in order to keep legal proceedings under the jurisdiction of U.S. District Court Judge David Doty in Minneapolis, the union needed to decertify before the current CBA expired. After two extensions, the deadline was moved to the end of yesterday, and the filings came in late afternoon.
Q: Why does the union want to remain in Doty’s court?
A: Doty has ruled in the players’ favor in the past, including last week in denying the league’s right to collect $4 billion in television payments if no games are played in 2011.
Q: What happens to free agency?
A: There is no free agency during a lockout and no player trading. The NFL prefers not to impose work rules, which means paying players while being sued by them, but the courts may force them to and that would start free agency.
Q: Will there be a draft?
A: Yes, in late April, but once players are selected, they can have no further contact with their new teams after draft day beyond the traditional congratulatory phone call.
Q: When is the latest games could start to have a real season?
A: The NFL has never played fewer than nine games. That low mark came in 1982, when they had already started playing before stopping the season. This time, with no training camp and no free agency, the league would need more lead time to get rolling. Much would depend on how far back the Super Bowl in Indianapolis could be pushed and whether schedule makers would get rid of the bye week preceding the Super Bowl (probably) or even the midseason bye weeks (unlikely).
Start getting nervous if nothing is happening by the first week of August.