MINNEAPOLIS -- The federal judge who oversaw NFL labor matters for almost two decades is considering a lawsuit brought by the NFL Players Association that accuses the league of collusion.
The players claim the NFL conspired to hold down salaries in 2010 with a secret salary cap.
An attorney for each side argued before U.S. District Judge David Doty on Thursday. Doty took the case under advisement, without promising when he'd decide but acknowledging he's not in a rush.
"We're not going to stop any games from being played or anything like that," Doty said.
Last year, Doty issued a key ruling for the players in a dispute over $4 billion in television revenue they contended the league held back to survive a long lockout. The claim was ultimately resolved as part of the new collective bargaining agreement reached last July in time to play the 2011 season.
The 83-year-old Doty also presided over the Reggie White settlement from 1993 -- the class-action suit that paved the way for the modern system of unrestricted free agency. The White settlement served as the backbone for the previous CBA.
Doty has ruled often in favor of the players, a pattern that even prompted him on Thursday to ask lead NFL lawyer Gregg Levy if the league had a problem with his presence. Doty said he woke up in the morning wondering whether he should continue and said he might recuse himself if the case got "bigger."
Levy said there was no problem.
"The judge is going to apply the law, and we have no issues at all with him continuing," Levy said in an interview after the two-hour hearing. "We raised an issue about whether it was appropriate for the judge to continue some years ago, but we have great respect for the judge and he has been very courteous and gracious to us and we think he's going to be very fair in resolving this issue, which we argue is quite straightforward."
The NFL's view is this: The new CBA prohibits the union from suing.
Levy said league owners did not collude to set a secret salary cap during the uncapped 2010 season. But he also argued that's a moot point. Even Doty said the union's petition to reopen the White settlement is a "steep hill."
When the new CBA replaced the old one, Doty's jurisdiction ended. Levy called the suit by the players "an extraordinary step" and claimed they promised twice not to sue anew as the current CBA was negotiated.
Levy also said the players could have brought their lawsuit two years ago, when the alleged freeze was taking place.
"They had every contract. They had every document," Levy said.
Dallas and Washington were penalized for overloading contracts in the 2010 uncapped season despite league warnings. The NFL took away $10 million in cap space from the Cowboys and $36 million from the Redskins.
Jeffrey Kessler, the union's lead lawyer, claimed the players only learned of the secret cap through the media. He cited comments made earlier this year by New York Giants owner John Mara, when the penalties were issued by the league, as evidence of the conspiracy.
"They attempted to take advantage of it knowing full well there would be consequences," Mara said then, referring to his team's NFC East rivals. "They were trying to take advantage and they were told not to."
Kessler called this a "fraud perpetrated on the players and the court" by the league. The union's argument is that because the alleged collusion took place in 2010, the old CBA should still apply. Kessler said the new agreement precluded further court action "for all asserted claims," insisting that because the union didn't know about the collusion until this year that this lawsuit doesn't fit into the category of "asserted."
"At that time of desperation for the players, we would've asserted that claim but we had no knowledge of that," Kessler said.
The players filed their lawsuit in May. They're seeking at least $4 billion in damages.
Doty injected his usual light-heartedness into the proceeding, teasing Kessler about his long-winded tendency and even joking to Levy that he should tell his long-time courtroom opponent "over a beer" how he consistently keeps his arguments to the allotted time frames. Doty said his jurisdiction over the NFL's labor issues for all these years has been "an honor and a privilege." He also suggested, tongue in cheek, that the locked-out officials union ought to find a way into his courtroom.
"You bring them out here to Minnesota," Doty said, "and we can take care of them."