Americans watched apprehensively last week as they waited for the critical moment. There was an anticipatory chill in the air as everyone appreciated the spectacular importance of the occasion"¦.
No, I'm not talking about the original Moon Landing. I'm talking about the lead-up to Judge Susan Nelson's announcement that she would grant the players request for an injunction and stop the NFL lockout. It may not have been quite as momentous as the Moon Landing but it definitely dominated yesterday's sport headlines.
But, despite Judge Nelson's ruling, most of the fan's questions remain unanswered. Few of us care about the legal particularities of the case; what we all want to know is: will there be football in 2011? Does Judge Nelson's ruling to end the lockout return NFL football to business as usual? Although her ruling does not totally answer all of these questions, it is critically important and it brings football a lot closer to the resolution that all football fans, myself included, are desperately hoping to see.
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The short answer is that Judge Nelson's ruling is not the end of the story. The NFL's legal team filed two motions: one for clarification (not terribly important for fan purposes) and a second to appeal the decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and get a stay on the ruling until their appeal is heard. In this case, what a "stay" would mean is that the Judge would delay the implementation of her own ruling until the higher court has heard the NFL's arguments. Judge Nelson can do one of three things: she can grant the stay, which would mean that nothing about the current situation would actually change and the lockout would remain in place for now, she can deny the stay, or she can refer it to the higher court and let them decide whether to grant it or not. However, Judge Nelson's decision will only delay the impact of her decision to end the lockout; what matters is whether the Appeals Court will expedite the case and hear it within weeks and, more importantly, whether they will overrule Judge Nelson's decision.
That sounds like a big pile of legal quicksand (and it is) but in reality we are now a lot closer to a resolution to the lockout than we were even a day ago. The Circuit Appeals Courts rarely overturn a lower court judge's verdict because they have to dispute her legal reasoning and, while some may disagree with Judge Nelson, the evidence suggests that she deliberated a long time and the legal reasoning behind her decision to end the lockout is very sound. Her ruling in favor of the player's also puts her in line with Judge David Doty's earlier rulings before he lost jurisdiction with the end of the NFL CBA, which is very important because it is highly unlikely that the Appeals Court will question the legal reasoning of two well respected judges from its jurisdiction.
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Knowing that, it is a lot easier to answer the really important question: Will There Be Football in 2011? Will there be an NFL season? Yes, there will be. The only situation remaining where there would not be a season, or there would be a shortened one, is if Judge Nelson decides to let the Appeals Court handle the decision to grant a stay on her ruling (unlikely) and the Appeals Court decides not to expedite the case (even more unlikely, considering its importance to so many Americans). In that case, the Appeal would wait until 2012 or even later and the lockout would remain in place while a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is negotiated. But the chance of that happening is extremely low and, if it doesn't there will be football next season.
The bottom line is that the NFL just lost most of its leverage. The league's inability to use TV revenues to protect themselves in a lockout due to Judge Doty's ruling in March and its loss of lockout leverage yesterday means that it has no more serious tools in its arsenal to threaten players. If the lockout is lifted soon, players will start to be paid and the NFL owners will be unable to squeeze desperate players into submission. Even worse, the leagues' unwillingness to open its accounting books will hurt it in continuing litigation and, if Judge Doty and Nelson's separate rulings are any indication, would run the risk of losing anti-trust suits and paying serious damages. All of that means that the league is likely to come back to the table and, if the players concede on any of their demands (even if it is far less than the NFL originally wanted) the NFL should, and probably will sign a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Once that happens, the NFL will begin preparations for the 2011 season. Fans can look forward to watching the Sunday Night Song instead of reading more legal briefs. Here's to hoping for that day to come soon!
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