NFL, players argue over legality of lockout
A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis scheduled the hourlong session to hear arguments from both sides. The same panel has upheld the lockout twice before, but its decision this time is considered a key step in the impasse that threatens the 2011 season.
There is no sign of a new collective bargaining agreement and the first scheduled preseason game is only two months away.
More than 20 players packed the courtroom, including Green Bay's Cullen Jenkins, the Jets' Tony Richardson and Giants standout Osi Umenyiora. Some 200 people were in attendance, taking advantage of folding chairs set up in the attorneys' seating area.
Players leader DeMaurice Smith was there. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was in Fort Bragg, N.C., a league spokesman tweeting that Goodell isn't a lawyer and "wouldn't have added much to the legal proceedings."
The heart of the court fight is U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson's decision on April 25 to lift the lockout, saying it was illegal and agreeing with the players that they were suffering irreparable harm.
The 8th Circuit has been seen as a more conservative, business-friendly venue for the NFL than the federal courts in Minnesota and the league quickly appealed Nelson's order. They were rewarded, with the same panel that heard Friday's hearing deciding in two 2-1 rulings to keep the lockout in place pending the full appeal.
"The district court reasoned that this case does not involve or grow out of a labor dispute because the players no longer are represented by a union," the majority wrote in its May 16 decision. "We have considerable doubt about this interpretation."
NFL attorney Paul Clement hit at that argument again Friday, saying he had "serious, serious doubts that the union is gone forever." The players have contended that dissolving the union, which happened March 11 just before the court fight began, is a perfectly legal step.
The hearing wasn't expected to yield an immediate decision, but one sports labor expert believes it will be expedited.
"They know that they have to move fast. We all know that training camps open in mid-July," said Jay Krupin of the Washington-based law firm EpsteinBeckerGreen. "I wouldn't be surprised if some of their clerks are already starting writing their opinion."
New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper said he hasn't heard specific drop-dead dates. But he believes by the start of August, "something has to be etched in stone," as for a new agreement.
"It looks bleak right now, but I'm thinking that something has to get worked out because too many people will be affected negatively if it does not get worked out," Sharper said Thursday.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay has said he believed some decisions on opening training camps late next month needed to be made by July 4.
Both sides finished three straight days of negotiations outside Chicago before the making their way to St. Louis. All parties declined comment, citing a court-ordered confidentiality agreement, and a federal magistrate canceled next week's scheduled mediation sessions, citing the "confidential settlement negotiations."
A person with knowledge of the talks told The Associated Press that the term doesn't necessarily mean an agreement is near. The person, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the judge's confidentiality order, said canceling next week's sessions was simply a way to keep the process as private as possible.
More likely than another round of mediated talks would be a similar secret meeting between just the league and players, who have been locked out since March 12. Such meetings between former union executive director Gene Upshaw and former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue often led to progress on a new CBA.
"At the front of the stage is the mediation, where they can walk out and smile for the TV cameras, but the back channel is really what makes the deal happen," Krupin said.
Any progress would be welcome.
"We can't just go from where we are now and jump into games," said free agent offensive tackle Damien Woody, who last played for the New York Jets. "There has to at least be an abbreviated training camp to get us somewhat prepared for the season. If not, there are going to be a lot of injuries. ... Training camp usually starts in late July, and time is running out because it's already June. I think we have to get a deal done by late July at the latest."
Free-agent linebacker Ben Leber, one of 10 plaintiffs on the still-pending antitrust lawsuit against the league, said the players haven't discussed a specific drop-dead date for reaching an agreement.
"Both sides have a day, whether they want to make it public or not," Leber said. "The biggest challenge is going to lie with whose day is going to come up first. Once it got to this point, I think it was just a good guess based on most corporate labor disputes that nothing was going to get done until the 11th hour. Now it depends on which 11th hour gets here first."
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York and AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell in Minneapolis, Larry Lage in Detroit, Brett Martel in Metairie, La., and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this story.