The NFL Players Association is challenging the structure of the NFL's television contracts in a filing Wednesday to Special Master Stephen Burbank of the University of Pennsylvania.
The NFLPA is arguing that the league essentially set up a 2011 lockout protection fund with the structure of its TV deals.
The union announced its legal filing in a story on its website, NFLPlayers.com.
The union, in its filing, argues that the NFL's guaranteed $4 billion in television revenues combined with the elimination of $4.4 billion in player salaries would make 2011 a profitable season for the owners even if no football is played because of a lockout.
The league's television contracts for the 2011 season provide for the networks to pay the league even though there would be no games during a lockout. The union argues that this agreement was made to the detriment of the players and is, in fact, a weapon to be used against the players in the lockout.
The union argues that the NFL didn't maximize revenue from other seasons when the league would have had to share that income with players. The union says that violates a 17-year-old agreement between the two sides, which stipulates the league must make good-faith efforts to maximize revenue for players.
The union is asking Burbank to order the league to put all TV money in an escrow instead of distributing it to the owners during the lockout. This would, obviously, produce significant leverage for the union.
If the television money is put into an escrow account, the owners would be forced to find other funds to make interest payments, stadium payments, and pay other bills that continue to accrue during a lockout.
"It appears that the owners bought a strategy to lock players and fans out and nonetheless financially protect themselves," Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth, a member of the NFLPA's executive committee, told NFLPlayers.com. "The players want to leave no stone unturned to make sure that CBA negotiations proceed in good faith and that next season is played in its entirety."
The NFL currently has television contracts with ESPN, NBC, CBS, Fox and DirecTV.
The NFL defended its television contracts in a statement Wednesday, calling the union's challenge "meritless."
"The television contracts that the union attacked [Wednesday] were agreed to during the worst economy in our lifetimes. Far from failing to maximize revenue, the contracts grew league revenue to fund higher player salaries and benefits," league spokesman Greg Aiello said.
"No wonder [NFLPA executive director] DeMaurice Smith said publicly this year, 'My hat's off to [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell. Television is locked up until 2014 to the tune of about $5 billion a year.' The union's meritless charges, including many inaccuracies, will be addressed in the proper forum, but they are simply a distraction and do nothing to get us any closer to a new CBA," Aiello said.
The current collective bargaining agreement expires in March, which could lead to a work stoppage during the 2011 season. Smith said talks between the union and league were still set to resume this month, and he insisted the complaint wouldn't hamper those negotiations.
Information from ESPN.com's Lester Munson and The Associated Press was used in this report.