NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed hope yesterday that collective bargaining negotiations could begin before next month’s Draft, something that is only likely, however, if the NFLPA faced significant setbacks. The class counsel for the players suing the NFL for antitrust violations, who also are the outside counsel to the NFLPA, have offered to talk to the league about settling the lawsuit. As the NFLPA has professed not to be a union, it cannot engage in collective bargaining. The league has rejected the offer to talk only to class counsel. So for collective bargaining to occur as Goodell hopes, the league would first have to fend off a move by the players suing the league to lift the lockout that has been in place since March 12. A federal court will hear arguments on the matter April 6 and is expected to decide within a few weeks after that. Whether a loss in federal court would be enough to force the players to re-certify though is entirely unclear. Thinking within league circles is a loss at the federal court would be a psychological blow to the players because the lockout would thus last far longer than they may have realized. “There will hopefully be negotiations before the Draft,” Goodell said. “It would be terrific if we could sit down and work towards an agreement before the Draft. We’ll have to wait and see on the litigation steps and see what the courts determine.” While the league feels confident about its legal position, the NFL has also lost on many occasions in the federal court in
NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT: Goodell, speaking at the end of the owners annual meeting, ruled out using replacement players if games are lost, and he strongly suggested the last offer to the players might not ever come back because of mounting economic losses caused by the lockout. “I’ve said very clearly that the proposal we gave them specifically identifies this to avoid a work stoppage,” he said. “Every day that goes by makes it harder and harder to keep the elements in that proposal and so that’s another reason for urgency and to get back to negotiations" (Daniel Kaplan, SportsBusiness Journal). In Boston, Ian Rapoport notes Goodell has not spoken with NFLPA Exec Dir DeMaurice Smith since the lockout began more than two weeks ago, but he indicated yesterday that the league's "final offer could get progressively worse if the impasse lingers" (BOSTON HERALD, 3/23). NFL Network's Jason La Canfora reported there are "no talks scheduled right now between the NFL and NFLPA," and "no mediation sessions scheduled." La Canfora: "The reality is we could be looking at months more of a legal battle beginning with the hearing in Minnesota April 6th with some appeals to follow. I don't anticipate either side getting back to the negotiating table before April 6th" ("NFL Total Access," NFL Network, 3/22). ESPN's Adam Schefter reported the NFL is "prepared to file right then and there for a stay" if District Judge Susan Nelson rules against the NFL on April 6. Schefter: "If it gets the stay that it wants then obviously, everybody would have to wait for the appeal court in St. Louis to hear this case, and that could be another 45-60 days before anything happens." He said of the owners meeting, "There are people who are at this meeting who do believe that the season is in peril" ("SportsCenter," ESPN, 3/22).
CAN'T TOUCH THIS: Goodell yesterday revealed that he "fined five teams, including the Miami Dolphins, for improper offseason contact with players before the lockout began March 12." USA TODAY's Jarrett Bell notes the since-expired CBA states that "teams were prevented from engaging with players in organized workouts, practices or meetings during an early offseason window that extends from the end of the season until the start of the offseason program in mid-March." Goodell also indicated that "locked-out players would still be subject to discipline under terms of the NFL's personal-conduct policy." The discipline "can't be imposed until the labor dispute is settled, but Goodell said that if violations occurred during the lockout, he wouldn't ignore them" (USA TODAY, 3/23). NFL Exec VP & General Counsel Jeff Pash said, "The commissioner sort of rather strongly suggested that one team in South Florida might have crossed the line" (PALM BEACH POST, 3/23). Meanwhile, the NFL would not confirm that the Browns were "one of five teams fined for violating league rules by meeting with players prior to the lockout." The club has acknowledged that new coach Pat Shurmur gave QB Colt McCoy "a copy of his playbook, but the rules do not specify that as a violation" (Cleveland PLAIN DEALER, 3/23).
draftees in for introductory press conferences
FULL NELSON: YAHOO SPORTS' Jason Cole wrote Nelson is the "only hope for a quick resolution to the labor dispute between the players and the owners." Nelson could "declare that the lockout by owners is illegal, that the NFL Players Association is not a union and then hold her decision in abeyance for 90 days." That would mean the league "wouldn’t have very strong grounds to fight her decision in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals," and also that the players "wouldn’t have the ability to get new contracts signed until July, hurting their chances to get rich deals in free agency." Under the possible ruling, "both sides would have plenty of incentive to work out" a new CBA. Cole added, "What needs to happen is for owners such as Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft, Art Rooney II and John Mara to get in a room with Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Vincent Jackson and Mike Vrabel and discuss their differences. The owners need to hear that the players feel disrespected. The players need to hear that the owners have serious financial concerns. ... Do that, and many of the other issues in this problem could fade away" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 3/22).
A LOOK AT THE PR BATTLE: ESPN.com's Jemele Hill wrote NFL players "have lost ground in recent days with childish retorts." The players seem to be in a "position of strength in terms of public perception because they have more avenues than ever to get their message across to the fans." But the "downside is that there are also more opportunities for the players to screw up and undermine their unified message." Hill: "The NFLPA came into these labor negotiations with an opportunity to be the outright winner in the battle of public perception. But the players have lost their leverage. Even worse, they have wasted their chance to find some common ground with many of their fans" (ESPN.com, 3/22). In West Palm Beach, Frank Cerabino writes, "It's hard to root for the labor gripes of millionaire pro football players. But it is possible, especially once their billionaire owners start talking." Cerabino writes it is a "real struggle to feel sorry for a union-bashing NFL owner" like the Dolphins' Stephen Ross, who earlier this week spoke out against unions (PALM BEACH POST, 3/23).
RULE CHANGES: In Boston, Greg Bedard notes the NFL yesterday changed the rules for kickoffs as part of an effort to "reduce injuries on one of the most dangerous plays in the game." Kickoffs now will take place at the 35-yard line instead of the 30, which the league believes will increase the likelihood of a touchback by 5-15%. Bedard notes one reason the NFL "must be proactive against injuries is to protect itself monetarily." The league is "trying to fend off a class-action lawsuit, Brady v. NFL, in regards" to the CBA, and it "may soon find itself the defendant in one or more class-action lawsuits for failure to protect players against injuries." Two groups of lawyers reportedly have been "preparing suits on behalf of recent players, and they could be filed by summer." NFLPA sources indicated that the "threat of such suits is an underlying reason why the league is playing hardball on the new CBA." The sources feel that the league is "trying to grab as much money as it can before these and other cases are tried, with the potential of damage awards in the hundred of millions of dollars" (BOSTON GLOBE, 3/23). In N.Y., Judy Battista notes the NFL also declared that "all playing fields will remain a league-approved shade of green -- no Boise State blue -- an attempt to keep teams from trying to change the color of the field at a sponsor’s request" (N.Y. TIMES, 3/23).