NFL needs more than a quick fix for labor woes

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 5, 2011 - 11:10 PM

Fans are the losers in the legal sparring match between owners and players, but a winning outcome is possible.

Picking a side to root for is, frankly, impossible. Neither the NFL's owners, nor its players, are sympathetic billionaires and millionaires. So let's turn our attention to what's best for you -- the fan that both sides say they truly love but totally take for granted because they know you'll never close your wallet on them.

The league's legal fisticuffs continue Wednesday in St. Paul when U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson hears the players' request for a preliminary injunction to end the owners' lockout while the Brady et al. vs. National Football League et al. antitrust lawsuit continues. If the players win, the lockout ends. If the owners win, the lockout continues.

Nelson isn't expected to rule from the bench, but her decision could come in a matter of days. The losing side likely will appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, where the fun would shift temporarily to St. Louis.

"I think if you're an NFL fan, you want the court to deny the injunction," said Matthew Cantor, a partner in the New York law firm Constantine Cannon and an antitrust law expert.

Fans starving for the lockout to end so free agency can begin might disagree. But Cantor said fans should ultimately want the owners and players to head back to the negotiating table and hammer out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement so there's labor peace heading into the 2011 season. Ending the lockout would embolden the players' resolve to avoid the negotiating table.

"I am so confident that there will be a 2011 season either way that as a fan, you want the lockout to continue because you'll see the players come back to the bargaining table," Cantor said. "With billions of dollars at stake, nobody is going to forgo a whole season."

In 2003, Cantor was on the lead counsel for the plaintiffs in a class-action antitrust lawsuit that led to several U.S. merchants and consumers winning a settlement of about $28 billion against Visa and MasterCard. The U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit called it the largest antitrust settlement in history. So Cantor knows antitrust law the way Mel Kiper Jr. knows the draft.

Cantor believes Nelson has no legal basis to grant the players' request for a preliminary injunction. He said the players can't prove they're being irreparably harmed by the lockout.

"That's the first thing you have to prove in a preliminary injunction motion," Cantor said. "It means the plaintiffs can't be compensated by money damages later. Here, you have [players] who have contracts for stipulated amounts of money. For instance, Tom Brady, I think, is making $7.5 million a year. If he's locked out and the players are ultimately right when this gets to the jury, then Tom Brady will get treble damages, or three times $7.5 million per year for however many seasons he lost because of a lockout. That's a lot of money."

If the lockout is lifted, the labor struggle still could loom over the sport via the courtroom for years to come.

"A case like this, I think the fastest you'd get to a trial is about four years," Cantor said. He also said the legal bills would be at least $50 million and would approach "nine figures."

Let's go out on a limb and suggest that tab would ultimately be passed on to you, the fan, in the form of higher prices for tickets, parking, concessions, Personal Seat Licenses, etc. Who knows, considering the NFL's current leverage advantage over the fans, maybe teams can start charging restroom fees on game day.

There also should be concern about what Brady et al. could do to the NFL if the players prevail. The lawsuit challenges the most basic rules that ensure the competitive balance that is at the root of the league's unmatched popularity and profitability. The draft, franchise tags and the salary cap are among the rules that could be altered or eliminated.

A well-balanced sports fan would spend Wednesday enjoying coverage of the Masters' Par 3 contest and not worrying about the NFL. But if your NFL-obsessed mind is on Judge Nelson's courtroom, remember what's in your best interest long-term. An end to the lockout is a quick football fix. A continuation of the lockout provides the urgency for both sides to sit down and settle this thing once and for all.

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com

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