NFL owners, players reach impasse

season in danger

Owners prepare for lockout after union decertifies and several players file antitrust lawsuit

March 11, 2011|By Sam Farmer, Tribune Newspapers

The union representing NFL players pushed away from the negotiating table and decertified Friday, an extreme measure that leaves the federal courts to determine the immediate future of the nation's most popular sports league.

Decertifying — dissolving the union — cleared the way for individual players to file antitrust lawsuits against the league, which likely could be barred from locking out those players.

In the immediate aftermath of decertification, a group of players that included three of the NFL's most popular quarterbacks — Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees — filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league in U.S. District Court to prevent a lockout. The players allege that the NFL conspired to prevent them from marketing their services.

The NFL and NFL Players Association participated in 17 days of sessions with a federal mediator, twice extending the expiration deadline of the collective bargaining agreement, but failed to strike a deal.

"We believe that ultimately this is going to be negotiated at the negotiating table," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. "They've decided to pursue another strategy, and that is their choice. But we are prepared to negotiate an agreement that is fair to the players and fair to the clubs."

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti did not return a message Friday.

"We're going to let the commissioner or [NFL lead negotiator] Jeff Pash speak for us," Ravens president Dick Cass said.

One sticking point has been the NFL's resistance to release complete financial data on its teams, information it doesn't even share among clubs. The league said it was willing to share more financial information with the players than it ever has. The players argue that if they're being asked to give more money back to the owners — money in addition to the $1 billion taken off the top before revenues are divided — they should be privy to that data.

"We met with the owners until about 4 o'clock today," NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said about 15 minutes before the union decertified. "We discussed a proposal they had presented. At this time, significant differences continue to remain. We informed the owners that … if there was going to be a request for an extension, that we asked for 10 years of audited financial information to accompany that extension."

The NFLPA has transitioned into a voluntary trade association with no authority to negotiate for the players. Now, labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler will take the lead on behalf of the players.

The NFL and NFLPA are fighting over how to divide the league's $9 billion in annual revenues. Ever since forging the latest collective bargaining agreement in 2006, team owners have been unhappy with the deal, saying it doesn't provide them with a big enough share to cover their costs and "grow the pie" with new stadiums, business initiatives and the like.

Labor peace has been a cornerstone of a league that hasn't had a work stoppage since the 1987 season. Every other major U.S. professional sports league has had either a strike or lockout in the interim.

New York Giants owner John Mara, who attended several days of discussions between the sides at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service offices in Washington, said the union's position on the core economic issues never changed "one iota" either before or during the 16 mediation sessions. Mara said the union's position since September was "Take it or leave it."

"One thing that became painfully apparent to me during this period was that their objective was to go the litigation route," Mara said. "I think that they believe that that gives them the best leverage. I never really got the feeling during the past two weeks that they were serious about negotiating, and it's unfortunate because that's not what collective bargaining is all about. I think eventually we'll be back at the table, but unfortunately, now we're going to have to go through this process now, where we're in court."

Each side is accusing the other of choosing a predetermined path — either lockout or decertification — and never veering. Those arguments will be pivotal in court, where each of the parties will need to prove they made a good-faith effort to strike a deal.

Ravens veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason said Friday he expects owners to lock out players.

"I think the owners have been preparing to lock us out over the course of the last two years," Mason said. "I think we've done enough over the last two years to get a deal done. … We tried in good faith to get a deal so it would not get to this point."

The NFL was initially asking for players to give back an additional $1 billion off the top, before revenues were divided 60-40 in favor of the players. The league said it reduced that request in negotiations and "more than split the economic difference" between the sides.

The league released what it described as a summary of its proposal to the players:

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