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Berthelsen predicts lockout in court testimony

NFL Players Association interim executive director Richard Berthelsen predicted in a San Francisco courtroom last week that the league’s owners are likely to lock the players out in 2011.

Berthelsen’s comments came while arguing to a jury, ultimately unsuccessfully, that punitive damages should not be assessed against the union after a ruling came down in favor of the group of retired players that brought forth the lawsuit.

“Every indication, at this point, is that that’s what the NFL owners want to do,” Berthelsen said of a lockout, “and that’s what they’re threatening the players with.”

While the forecast was directed at the jury, it serves notice beyond the courtroom that America’s top sport could be headed for all-out labor war.

An NFL spokesman did not reply for comment.

The NFLPA was planning to appeal or ask the judge to throw out the jury’s decision to award the class of more than 2,000 retired players $28.1 million for not paying them a fair share of licensing money and not marketing them.

A potentially bigger impact of the decision, though, could be its effect on the labor issue. If the NFLPA has to pay the money, Berthelsen said it would damage the group’s ability to fight with the owners.

The union is sitting on two large pools of money, the court testimony revealed. The first pool comprises two strike funds that together have $121 million in them as of February. There is an additional $98 million available in a fund that is not designated for specific purposes.

In total, the union’s assets stood at $298 million at the end of February, according to documents presented during the trial. However, Berthelsen testified that given the current economic environment, it’s unlikely the NFLPA can count on sustaining the $81 million on average that the union reaps annually in licensing money.

Richard Berthelsen

“Frankly, the way the economy has turned in the last few months, there’s a concern by everyone in terms of revenues, because we are talking about discretionary spending of the American public,” he said.

The union might not necessarily have to dip into its reserves to pay the retired players if it comes to that. Roman Oben, who recently retired and is a former player representative, said that for three consecutive years, the union has tabled proposals to increase the dues of $10,000 per player. With salaries having increased in that time, the union might increase the dues by 50 percent, he said. With 1,800 active players, that would bring in a new $9 million annually.

Oben was not part of the class of retired players in the case at hand.

NFL owners, in May, opted out of the collective-bargaining agreement, arguing it is too friendly for the players. That makes 2010 the last year of the deal and one without a salary cap.

There have been no talks between the two sides since Gene Upshaw, Berthelsen’s predecessor, died on Aug. 20. One source said discussions might not begin until well after the NFLPA chooses its new leader, which is expected to happen in March.

One of the NFL’s top outside advisers is Bob Batterman, who guided the NHL through its lockout of that sport’s players in 2004-05. Berthelsen commented to the jury about that work stoppage.

“We recently saw how the hockey players were locked out and they lost an entire season,” he said. “Literally, hundreds of millions of dollars were lost as a result of that lockout.”

The jury verdict forces the NFLPA to confront again how it handles matters of retired players versus active players, an issue that has dogged the union in recent years.

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