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NFL Mediation Talks Put on Hold, Rulings to Come

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While we all digest the newly-released 2011 NFL schedule and fantasize about sitting in our pj's on any given Sunday -- wide-mouth can in one hand, riblet in the other -- cheering on the Bengals (as one does), the brutal reality of the lockout continues to upset our daydreams by forcing upon us an alternate schedule of court dates that have the start of the season hanging in their balance.

Prompted by the suggestion of U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who was called in to rule on the NFLPA's request for an injunction to lift the lockout, NFL owners and player representatives have been meeting with U.S. Judge Magistrate Arthur Boylan in Minneapolis to work toward resolving their labor dispute. Now, after four sessions of reportedly "intense" discussions, Boylan has called a break to the proceedings, saying that the sides likely won't reconvene until May 16. In the meantime, there are a handful of rulings that may come down which could radically alter the landscape for negotiations.

Over at National Football Post, Andrew Brandt (that buzzkill) lays out the schedule of legal proceedings and their potential impact in Q-and-A style. Here's a quick run-down of what's to come before any games (football, that is) can resume:

  • The next evolution may likely be Nelson's ruling on whether or not to grant the players' request to have the lockout lifted. After hearing from both sides (and expressing her difficulties with the complex nature of the case), Nelson said her decision would take "a couple of weeks," which was a couple of weeks ago. Brandt believes that Nelson will rule in favor of the players, but that the NFL will certainly appeal the decision. To not complicate that appeal, Nelson will keep the lockout intact through the appeals process. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals may not choose to hear the case, but even that decision could take up to four weeks. If Nelson were to force the NFL to start business, she would likely defer to the league about operating rules, and the NFL would likely revert to the most recent system.
  • We're still waiting to hear from U.S. District Judge David Doty about the "lockout insurance" business. The issue here is that the NFL negotiated television contracts that secured them funding even in the event of a lockout at the cost of lesser total revenue in the deals. The NFLPA's claim that this was bad faith on the part of the league was upheld by Doty. Now we're waiting to hear what the damages awarded to the players will be, which we'll know more about when the two sides appear before Doty again on May 12.
  • There are also some rumors now that the solidarity of the players is beginning to splinter with a report by the Sports Business Journal that 70 "mid-tier" players have found their own counsel to represent them in negotiations. Although the accuracy of this report is being debated, the implication being floated here is that there may be unrest among the players, which may lead to a divided front that could weaken their position, causing them to be the first to "crack" in the proceedings.
  • And then there's the draft, which will transpire before any of these issues are resolved. Some of these prospects already have their hand in the fight with their own lawsuit, which has been combined with the primary antitrust suit against the NFL headed by current players Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

Depending on how these issue play out, by May 16 one side or the other may have a significant advantage in negotiations. Says Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead negotiator:

"There's a lot of uncertainties right now [...] I think when we're back together we'll know more. People's legal positions will be clearer."

As for me, as much as I like football and love to watch the Bengals play, right now I just wish this was all resolved so I didn't have to wrap my mind around the judicial branch of our government (it gives me dreadful flashbacks to high school Social Studies). So for now, I'll try to calm myself with Hall of Famer Carl Eller's assessment of the recent round of mediation talks:

"I do feel very positive about the 2011 season," Eller said. "I think everybody has come here with the idea to have a 2011 season and it's just not been easy to get to that point. So I think everybody's been working hard toward that goal. Seeing them work to that end makes me much more optimistic. I would certainly say we're going to have a 2011 season."

I don't think many doubt there will be a season -- but when, Carl, when?