The NFL's labor situation has gone from bad to worse.
Talks between the owners and players broke down Friday, and the NFL Players Association decertified. In response to a federal antitrust suit filed Friday, with three Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks among 10 players listed as plaintiffs, the NFL put a lockout into effect, sources told NFL.com.
With this contentious fight moving from the conference room to the courtroom, months could easily pass before the owners and players reach a new collective bargaining agreement.
Somebody dial 911.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith gave NFL owners an ultimatum Friday afternoon, asking for 10 years of audited financial records from the owners. Smith said the NFLPA would need those financial records before the union would agree to extend talks beyond Friday's negotiating deadline. The NFL declined.
“I dare any one of you to show an economic indicator the NFL has fallen on hard times,” Smith said Friday night outside his Washington office.
"We think mediation is the fairest and fastest way to a reach an agreement that works for the players and the clubs," commissioner Roger Goodell said Friday night. "And we believe ultimately this is going to be negotiated at the negotiating table. But they've chosen to pursue another strategy, and that is their choice.
"But we will be prepared to negotiate an agreement that is fair to the players and fair to the clubs."
DeMaurice Smith and the NFLPA end their talks with the NFL. (AP Photo)
Federal mediator George H. Cohen said Friday night that he saw "no useful purpose" in extending the negotiations. If both sides ask for his assistance later, he said he would welcome more mediation.
"The parties have not achieved an overall agreement," Cohen said, "nor have they been able to resolve the strongly held competing positions that separated them on core issues."
Decertification was the union's biggest card to play in negotiations, and it finally played it. That sets the stage for a long, contentious court battle between the owners and players that could drag on for months and months and threaten the 2011 season.
By decertifying, the union cleared the way for individual players to file antitrust lawsuits against the NFL, which opted out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2008. It renounced its right to represent the players in contract bargaining.
The union -- now operating as a "trade association" -- filed an injunction Friday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis to block NFLlockout. New England Patriots QB Tom Brady, Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning and New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees are the primary plaintiffs, and a ruling is expected at some point in the next month.
The case was assigned to U.S. District judge Patrick Schiltz, not his colleague David Doty, who has overseen NFL labor matters since the early 1990s and has several times ruled in favor of the players. The lawsuit still could end up in front of Doty. New cases are randomly assigned to judges when they're filed but are sometimes reassigned to others on the bench with expertise in a certain issue.
“Not once have the players asked for more money during this negotiation," Brees wrote Friday night on Twitter. "That is a FACT. I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for us. ... Past players sacrificed a great deal to give us what we have now in the NFL, and we will not lay down for a second to give that up.
"We have a responsibility and at some point you just have to stand up for what is right.”
The NFL, in a statement, said it had offered to split the difference in the financial gap and to ultimately reach the players' asking price by the end of a proposed five-year CBA. The NFL also said it had offered a rookie salary scale for first-round picks, guarantee no reduction in veteran pay, reduced offseason workouts, retain the current 16-game regular season and establish a new $82 million fund for improved health coverage for retired players.
NFLPA counsel Jim Quinn called the NFL's statement "a lie," saying the league's last offer would roll back player salaries back to 2007 levels. Smith said the NFL last proposal would have reduced the salary cap from "$149 million to 2009 to $141 million in 2011" and added that 2012 cap would have been $148 million, also less than the 2009 cap.
Smith said the players' union was willing to extend the negotiating window a third time but was only willing to do so if the owners agreed to present 10 years worth of audited financial data for all 32 teams. The owners balked, and the union decided the deal on the table wasn't as favorable as the one it could forge once the court challenges play out.
"They said, 'Trust us,' but when it came time for the verification, they told us it was none of our business," Smith said. "The measure of our association is the men and their families who fight for the only thing they can bestow to each other: a better game, a safer game and a recognition from those who own for common respect."
Simply, from the players' and owners' perspective, there wasn't much pressure to compromise now -- and there won't be until July. This is the league's first work stoppage since 1987.
"I'd say to fans -- I don't think we're going to lose the season," said Gary Roberts, a law professor at Indiana University-Indianapolis and a labor relations expert. "We might lose the preseason, and we might lose a couple of games in the regular season. But I can't believe they won't get a deal done in time for most, if not all, of the 2011 season."
Now that the union has decertified and the CBA has expired, the NFL can do one of two things: Lock out the players or declare an impasse and institute new work rules. PittsburghSteelers president Art Rooney said Friday night that the lockout was the likely course of action.
"We're going to make that decision in the next 24 hours," Rooney told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I would say we're probably headed in that direction."
At the stroke of midnight ET, the lockout became official, sourced told NFL.com.
In the 52-page lawsuit filed Friday, the players are seeking a declaration that NFL salary cap, draft, franchise tag and other restrictions violate the Sherman Antitrust Act, according to SportsBusiness Journal. The suit also seeks a declaration that NFL teams pay all contractually owed amounts to players regardless if lockout continues.
If Doty grants the injunction to prevent the lockout, the NFL could appeal that decision. During the appeals process, the league likely would be forced to take the players back and impose work rules. The new "trade association" then is expected to file an antitrust lawsuit.
At the same time, the league could ask the NLRB to decide on a charge that the union did not engage in serious bargaining. The NLRB, if it sides with the league, could file an injunction in a federal court seeking to block the union's decertification. A union cannot file an antitrust lawsuit, so decertifying was critical to the players' strategy.
With the dispute now in court, both sides could end up with a deal they don't like.
Goodell had emphasized that negotiation was better than litigation. The case now goes to Doty -- who already has ruled against the owners, denying them access to more than $4 billion in TV money during a lockout -- and has been favorable to players in other rulings.
With the league seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in concessions, the players weren't willing to move much in negotiations unless the league opened its books fully and justified the proposed cuts.
"No one is happy where we are now," NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said. "I think we know where the commitment was. It was a commitment to litigate all along.
“The absence of an agreement is a shared failure. I think (fans) should be disappointed.”