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NFL Lockout: Is there a way to get players and owners back to the table?

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The United States District Courthouse, Minneapolis Building...is there anything that can be done to settle the NFL labor battle outside of the courts and at the bargaining table?
The United States District Courthouse, Minneapolis Building...is there anything that can be done to settle the NFL labor battle outside of the courts and at the bargaining table?

Yesterday, I pitched the idea for the St. Louis Rams to be featured on HBO's "Hard Knocks" television show, the documentary that follows an NFL team through training camp. In truth, the best option for the show this year might be to send cameras to the Minnesota court room of Judge Susan Nelson, since that's where the bulk of football action will be happening. The next "game" in the NFL's labor morass is scheduled for April 6, when Judge Nelson hears the plaintiffs' (Brady, et al.) motion for a preliminary injunction to lift the lockout. It seems pretty straight forward, but there are a couple of twists and turns that could alter the path to football and an endless legal battle.

Judge Nelson's decision on the lockout is expected within a week or two of the April 6 date, certainly before the start of the 2011 NFL Draft. If the court grants the injunction, the business of football could get back on track, likely under the no-cap rules that governed the 2010 season. The Brady, et al. vs the National Football League, et al. battle would then continue for a seemingly endless amount of time in court.

Of course, that's not guaranteed to happen. As we mentioned earlier this week, the NFL filed a brief requesting a stay for the injunction hearing until the National Labor Relations Board is able to decide on the league's claim that the NFLPA's decertification was legit. Another factor to consider is that the players have to demonstrate "immediate" harm from the lockout, no slam dunk in April. Yahoo's Jason Cole presents another scenario, one that could send both sides back to the bargaining table, where the most mutually beneficial agreement is likely to be forged. 

Nelson could declare that the lockout by owners is illegal, that the NFL Players Association is not a union and then hold her decision in abeyance for 90 days. What that means is that the league wouldn't have very strong grounds to fight her decision in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. It would also mean that the players wouldn't have the ability to get new contracts signed until July, hurting their chances to get rich deals in free agency.

A decision like that would carve a precious 90 days out of the offseason, a time when teams are usually practicing and getting players up to speed on the playbook. Most of all, like Cole says, taking away free agency, and all those spring rosters bonus, would give the players a little more motivation to get something worked out sooner rather than later. Owners, left without an appeal on the injunction, would prefer talking over fighting it out in court where circumstances do not favor them based on precedent. (That's one reason they're fighting decertification so fiercely, since if they can get that thrown out, the antitrust case goes out with it). 

It's hard to say whether or not players would be content to hold out until the abeyance lifts and the business of football resumes while the matter gets settled in court. Remember, the last court case took years, and this one is likely to take that long too. Even if the players did wait it out for 90 days, they won't be happy about things like the six-year free agent rule and no salary floors for teams. 

At the very least, that scenario would give both sides some impetus to go back to the negotiating table, something that was lacking during mediation and is still lacking even with the clock ticking.

There are still a few optimists out there who think both sides will eventually start negotiating again, perhaps directly as owners and players, a suggestion offered by Mike Vrabel that received a lukewarm reception by the league. But even those optimists will acknowledge that talks are not going to happen until the both sides start to feel a little pain. 

I'm still a skeptic who believes that this thing is headed for a long and winding and acrimonious road through the courts.