Mudslinging between NFL players and owners the past, few weeks that has played out through the media moves to a more formal setting this morning, when U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson presides over a hearing in federal court in St. Paul, Minn.
Nelson will listen to motions filed by both former and past NFL players seeking a preliminary injunction to lift the lockout imposed by league owners on March 12, one day after the NFL Players Association dissolved.
A group of players headlined by big-name quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees filed antitrust litigation after expressing dissatisfaction with the owners’ last-ditch effort to broker a new collective bargaining agreement.
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The NFLPA is now a trade association after decertification. And with the absence of a collective bargaining relationship with the league, individual players can use antitrust law to challenge the NFL.
Along with wanting an injunction, players seek a trial to examine if the NFL violated federal antitrust law in locking them out, along with challenging what they deem are league restrictions on competition, including the salary cap and the draft. A trial could take months, perhaps years to resolve.
Most fans could care less about the specifics of the case. But the hearing is critical because at issue is whether or not the NFL will hold a season in 2011.
If Nelson rules in favor of the players’ request for a preliminary injunction, then football might open for business again on a temporary basis. The owners most certainly would file an appeal with the 8th Circuit Court to allow the lockout to continue.
If Nelson denies the players’ request, the lockout continues, and the owners gain significant leverage in the labor dispute.
Nelson is expected to hear from players and owners today, and could take up to two weeks to make a decision.
According to local attorneys familiar with antitrust law, the players have to demonstrate four things in order to sway Nelson to rule in their favor.
They have to show that they would probably win on their legal claims in a full trial. The players also have to show that they would suffer irreparable harm and money alone cannot make them whole. They have to convince Nelson that a preliminary injunction would not harm the NFL more than it helps the NFLPA. And, lastly, players have to show the injunction would advance the public’s interest by restoring the NFL and bringing the parties back to bargaining table.
Got all that?
Local attorneys believe players have their work cut out for them in the courtroom.
“I will say this – relief like a preliminary injunction is an extreme remedy, and is an uphill battle for the players to receive,” said Steve Calandrillo, a contract law professor at the University of Washington Law School. “Usually courts opt to compensate through money if possible.”
Louis Peterson, a prominent Seattle attorney who defended the University of Washington in the school’s wrongful termination suit against former Huskies head football coach Rick Neuheisel, agreed.
“It will be difficult for the players to meet the high standard for issuance of a preliminary injunction,” he said. “They have to show a strong likelihood of prevailing at trial, and that there will be harm to them or to the public if an injunction does not issue.”
Calandrillo said the uncertainty of Nelson’s final decision could serve as an impetus for the two sides to negotiate a settlement.
“I think settlement is a possibility,” he said. “A vast majority of these cases are settled. And I think both sides have financial interest in reaching a settlement. And I think you could see that happen before the judge’s ruling or after.”
However, no matter what Nelson’s decision is, both attorneys believe ultimately football will be played this year.
“It certainly possible it could drag on for awhile,” Calandrillo said. “But my guess is both sides have financial incentive to try and reach a deal before the 2011 season.”
Added Peterson: “The NFL is hugely profitable for both the owners and players. “They will find a way to settle this dispute before the 2011 season begins.”
If you’re looking for more information on Nelson to try and figure out how she will rule, here’s a nice rundown by Gary Graves of USA Today.
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