I hate to admit it, but I've been writing the last few weeks with a self-consciousness about not being able to fully penetrate the enigma-wrapped mystery of the current antitrust lawsuit filed by the players against the NFL. It did me a world of good to learn yesterday that even the federal judge presiding over the newest phase of the case is somewhat befuddled by the whole thing. While trying to parse out the legalities of each side's position during a five hour hearing in St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson is reported to have struggled with the ins-and-outs of the whole debacle.
Nelson listened to arguments from lawyers for the players and the league Wednesday, asking questions often and speaking politely but directly while acknowledging her difficulty discerning which components of the laws apply to this complicated case.
On the one hand, that's fantastic news, vindicating my own confusion. On the other hand, it suggests the possibilities of a lengthy court proceeding to untangle those complications, keeping football on the shelf even longer.
In the end, Nelson said her ruling would "take a couple of weeks," but she may have been speaking for the fans when she suggested that in the meantime the sides shouldn't just sit on their hands waiting. Rather, they should resume negotiations and work to settle a dispute that's injurious to everyone involved.
"It seems to me both sides are at risk, and now is a good time to come back to the table," Nelson said, noting her willingness to facilitate the resumption of talks toward a new collective bargaining agreement that would put pro football back on track.
To me, that reads a lot like "this is gonna be a pain in the ass to figure out, so why don't you guys just kiss and make up -- I'll talk you through it." And really, that's the best solution. It's way too hard to divvy up all the shared possessions in the apartment, so the players and the owners might as well just keep living together. They're happy most of the time anyway.
The case before Nelson, the first in a potential daisy-chain of cases, concerns the legalities of the NFLPA's decertification and the NFL's resultant decision to lockout the players. This hearing, specifically, was focused on a petition filed by the players for a temporary injunction against the lockout, "a plea to the judge that the lockout be immediately lifted on the grounds that their careers are being irreparably harmed." The owners, obviously, have a different story. And for us fans, it's simply becoming a case of he said-she said:
He said: C'mon, man. As players, we have the right to dissolve our union. And because we're no longer unionized, you have no legal grounds on which to enforce this lockout. Let's get back to some football!
She said: Phhh....baloney! This is dirty pool, some kind of smarmy tactic. You're still acting like a union, the NFLPA is still financing all these lawsuits and injunction requests, so why shouldn't we treat you like a union? I mean, you all came here on the same bus!
He said: Dude, we carpooled -- get over it. We got no jobs, so we need to conserve our gas money. We're gonna have to keep doing that kind of stuff, or start stealing from casinos, since you're killing our careers. Besides, it's not a tactic; we totally have the right to decertify our union. We all agreed to it. Like our lawyer James Quinn says: "It's not some kind of tactic. It's the law [...] It's what we're allowed to do."
She said: Well, whatever. This case is bogus anyway. This court has no jurisdiction since we're still waiting to hear back from the NLRB (that's National Labor Relations Board for you dumb jocks) about that suit we filed about you acting in bad faith with this trade association garbage.
He said: We are a trade association now.
She said: What the hell's a "trade association"?
He said: Oh...you know...a thing that's not a union.
She said: Yeah right....Anyway, where's Tom Brady? Can I get a picture with him?
He said: No, he's not here today. He's busy combing his hair.
She said: Awww....mannnn....
It looks like despite Nelson's effort to reign in this bickering, her suggestion to resume talks may be all for naught:
James Quinn, an attorney for the players, said they'd "listen carefully" to Nelson's recommendation. But David Boies, a lawyer for the league, hedged when asked about Nelson's offer to supervise talks.
"We don't need a settlement of this lawsuit," Boies said. "What we need is a collective bargaining agreement so that players can go on playing and the league can put on games. Until we have that, we're not going to make any progress."
Ultimately, when Nelson does make her ruling about this injunction request it may only result in more litigation.
When she reveals her decision, the winner would have leverage whenever talks resume on a new CBA. However, that ruling will all but likely be appealed. She could also defer a decision until after the NLRB rules, which could take months, or declare the need to schedule another hearing to consider the evidence in the case before she rules.
That would be a loss for the players.
"All of this is delay so they want to put pressure on us," Quinn said.
Time and pressure. Someone's got to crack.