NFL players allowed to return to team facilities Friday

League expected to announce details such as free-agency rules, though legal experts say labor dispute far from over

Ravens' Mason says he'll stop by team headquarters

April 28, 2011|By Ken Murray, THE BALTIMORE SUN

Told twice in three days by a federal judge to abandon its contentious lockout, the NFL set a timetable Thursday to return to the business of football.

If only it were that easy.

After six weeks on the outside, players finally will be permitted to enter team facilities Friday morning for the purpose of working out, receiving medical treatment, collecting playbooks and getting instruction from coaches. Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason said he will make an appearance at the team's Owings Mills facility.

But the short-term victory of injunction may yet turn into a long-term battle of perseverance, said Phillip Closius, the dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law.

The NFL is expected to announce Friday when the league year will officially start and under what terms — the nature of free agency, the price of business. It will be anything but business as usual.

"The most important question is, does business as usual mean they can still put in a salary cap for next year?" Closius asked. "Or are each of the 32 teams individually bidding on players in a free-market system with no salary cap?"

The injunction by U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson "does not mean this is over by any means," Closius said.

Bottom line: If the owners install a salary cap, they are at risk of antitrust violation for collusion. If they don't install a cap, Closius said, they are in compliance with the law, but probably in chaos.

It's a tightrope for owners to walk. They have appealed Nelson's decision on injunction to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, with the hope of reinstating the lockout.

Meanwhile, the start of the draft Thursday was a day of confusion for veteran players.

"Players are calling, telling me they're getting calls from coaches, and they're asking me, 'Should I get a flight to attend a Monday workout?' " Jason Chayut, a player agent for Sportstars Inc., said. "We'll all left to speculate. This is fluid."

Chayut said he was dismayed that the NFL waited until Thursday — after getting Nelson's decision Monday — to comply with a court order.

"But now that we are where we are, I can't say it's logical to have free agency right now," he said.

Mason, a player representative for the Ravens and 14-year NFL veteran, is willing to give the league slack on its slow response.

"I'm not bothered at all by it," he said. "When you're dealing with something this big, you want to make sure you understand it."

Offensive tackle Oniel Cousins became the first Raven to visit the complex when he stopped in Thursday during the draft to speak with owner Steve Bisciotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome.

Players with offseason workout bonuses are expected to report around the league Friday morning to be in compliance with those incentive clauses.

No one could be certain how long this labor peace lasts. Gary Roberts, dean of the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis, believes the owners will find success in the St. Louis court.

"Of course these things are not completely predictable," Roberts said in an email Thursday, "but if I had to guess I would say that I'd be very surprised if the 8th Circuit does not grant the stay and then reverse the injunction. In my opinion Judge Nelson's opinion is very weak and has several legal statements and conclusions that are extraordinary and probably unacceptable to the appellate court. Time will tell."

Closius, the dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, warned that this could become a waiting game if the two sides don't reach a settlement in the near future, and a waiting game favors the owners.

"All the owners want to do is delay and get to the point where players lose game checks, and then players will collapse," he said. "The next legal play is [for the owners] to get the stay. If they do, they'll be happy because the circuit court won't hear the case until the season has already started. That will put pressure on the players.

"Everybody thinks this was a huge victory. I'm not quite sure that's true."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kenmurraysun

Baltimore Sun reporter Jamison Hensley contributed to this article.

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