SBD/April 6, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

NFL Lockout Watch, Day 26: Lockout Hearing Taking Place Today In St. Paul

The NFL legal road show gets underway this morning in a federal courtroom in St. Paul, where the league squares off against two sets of players seeking to lift the nearly month-old lockout and accusing the league of antitrust violations. The hearing began at 9:30am CT and should wrap up by noon. NFL lawyers are expected to brief the media after the hearing. At stake is not just whether the ‘11 season will start on time -- or at all -- but the economic and dispute resolution systems the league will operate under for years to come. Whenever Judge Susan Nelson decides, and sources within football say a decision might come as early as Monday, the loser is sure to appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, ensuring the legal drama does not reside only in Minnesota. A class of 10 players (nine active and one incoming) are suing to lift the lockout and alleging the league’s restrictions on player movement are antitrust violations, while a group of four retirees and one incoming player are suing to protect the rights of non-active players. At issue immediately is an injunction request to lift the lockout (the former players are asking for the NFL Draft to be halted). The NFL contends the court does not have jurisdiction over labor disputes and that the NLRB must first decide whether the former union’s decertification, necessary to bring antitrust cases, is valid. The players reject those contentions.

IRREPARABLE HARM THE BIGGEST HURDLE: Perhaps the players’ biggest hurdle will be proving irreparable harm, one of the threshold legal criteria for winning an injunction. Irreparable harm is generally considered non-economic harm, and the players contend that their inability to use team facilities is a significant harm to their careers. The league contends it is not. Several players have been quoted in publications in recent weeks downplaying the current severity of the lockout. Giants K Lawrence Tynes in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal was quoted as saying he would not be worried until about June about the lockout. That could indicate he is not being irreparably harmed by the lockout, at least at the moment. The players must also convince Nelson they have a high likelihood of winning the antitrust case in order to get the injunction. Given they are seeking removal of most free agency restrictions, and in all likelihood would seek to disallow the draft after the one later this month, a players victory would be a major setback for the owners. And if the lawsuits are not thrown out, the league could be faced, like in ‘93, with a court-ordered settlement that installs federal judicial oversight over the league’s labor relations. That is something the NFL has been strenuously seeking to avoid.
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