- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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NFL owners talked a lot of labor and a bunch of football during a two-day meeting in New Orleans, but the league’s most “off” offseason in more than two decades could get dicey in the weeks and months ahead.
In wrapping up the meeting Tuesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reiterated the importance of owners and players getting back to the bargaining table, but chances of that happening soon are at the mercy of the courts. Although a window was opened Monday by former NFLPA union executive director DeMaurice Smith offering to have the executive committee of the trade association meet with owners, legal problems will most likely prevent that from happening.
So where do we go from here?
1. The next stop for the NFL is the federal courtroom of Judge Susan Nelson in St. Paul, Minn. On April 6, she will hear the Tom Brady case. Brady and other players involved in the class action suit against the NFL have asked Judge Nelson to stop the lockout. It would be unusual for a federal judge to make a ruling that day. She could make some limited ruling in a week to 10 days after the hearing. Until then, no players transactions can occur.
2. So what happens if Judge Nelson lifts the lockout? On Monday, NFL attorneys made their stance clear. According to NFL sources, the league is reluctant to implement a football system that leaves them vulnerable to antitrust litigation, which leaves the league exposed to treble damages. If the NFL loses in Nelson's court, it would ask for an immediate stay that would keep the lockout alive until an appellate court hears the case. If Judge Nelson provides enough structure in a back-to-work order that doesn’t leave owners exposed to antitrust penalties, the NFL could impose work rules, possibly the 2010 rules in which free agency required six years of experience and no salary cap for teams.. If Nelson doesn’t give NFL owners antitrust protection, no one knows what the league will do. And, yes, there is a doomsday scenario in which owners decide not to have a season.
3. What’s blocking a meeting between the players and owners? Lawyers. Unlike the Reggie White settlement in 1993 in which Gene Upshaw’s trade association worked out a CBA with the owners outside the courtroom, NFL lawyers this time say they won’t deal with players unless they clarify their status and say they are union, which would hurt the players’ position in court. After the March 11 offer by the owners, the players are up to make a counter-offer. Under that declaration requirement, the players would be hurting their case if they have a meeting. The players’ decertification of their union status has kept them away from the bargaining table.
4. How will the labor woes change the offseason? It’s looks more and more likely teams will have to draft without having the benefits of free agency. That hasn’t happened since the mid-1980s when there was no free agency. All teams had then were drafts and trades. Draft choices for next season can’t be used because there isn’t an approved 2012 draft. Teams can’t sign undrafted free agents. Trades aren't allowed. The good teams build through drafts. This offseason, all 32 teams may have no other choice but to build through the draft, forcing them to consider filling needs early in the draft instead of taking the best player available.
5. Was there anything positive that came from the owners meeting? From the football side, the league believes it modernized the replay rules by having booth officials confirm all scoring plays, freeing up replay challenges for coaches on non-scoring plays. The other football rule change of note involved kickoffs, which will start at the 35, with touchbacks placed at the 20. Safety was the reason for those changes.