Preliminary hearing set for April 6

Updated: March 15, 2011, 10:35 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

MINNEAPOLIS -- An April 6 hearing date has been set in the federal antitrust lawsuit filed by players against the NFL.

The players filed a request last week for an injunction that would keep the NFL and the teams from engaging in a lockout, which took effect at midnight Friday. The hearing is scheduled to be in front of U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in Minnesota.

A settlement between the owners and players before the hearing is unlikely, an NFLPA source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. The source expects a ruling on the players' injunction request within a week of the hearing.

"No chance whatsoever," the source said when asked if a settlement was possible. "There is no union anymore so it is impossible for collective bargaining to occur and there will be no settlement or even the discussion of it before this injunction is ruled on."

The case first went to Judge Richard Kyle, who recused himself for unspecified reasons. It was reassigned to Judge Patrick Schiltz. On Monday, Schiltz cited a conflict of interest because he represented the NFL in several cases as a private practice attorney. The case then went to Nelson.

Deb Bell, interim division manager in the court clerk's office in Minneapolis, said cases are randomly assigned by computer.

The players want the case before U.S. District Judge David Doty, who has overseen NFL labor matters since the early 1990s and issued a number of rulings against the league.

Although it was thought that the case could not be reassigned again, former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Tom Heffelfinger told The Associated Press on Monday that there is a way for the case to still wind up in front of Doty, even after the injunction request is settled.

"If either the court or one of the parties designates the case as a related case to one that has been previously assigned to another judge, it could get reassigned," Heffelfinger said.

Doty presided over the landmark settlement in 1993 that opened the doors for true free agency. Because that case has not been closed, Bell said, the possibility remains that the new case could be designated as related and therefore reassigned to Doty.

Nelson would have to consent to the case being reassigned, Bell said.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the idea that the players would prefer Doty to handle the case is overblown.

"To us, that's not an issue," Brees said Monday. "That was something that the owners seemed to be very concerned about and focused on. For us, it's about the facts and it's about the law. And we believe those are on our side. We're not concerned about that."

The owners tried to get Doty removed for bias after his 2008 ruling against the NFL that let quarterback Michael Vick keep more than $16 million in roster bonuses from the Atlanta Falcons. Doty ruled that Vick earned his bonuses before he was convicted of dogfighting charges and sentenced to prison, and his decision was upheld on appeal.

Most recently, Doty sided with the players in a March 2 ruling, saying the league improperly negotiated TV contracts with an eye toward building $4 billion in reserves for a lockout.

There are more than two weeks before the hearing.

"There's no hard-set deadline for us," said former player Kevin Mawae, who was president of the players' union before it was dissolved on Friday to clear the way for the antitrust lawsuit. "At the end of the day, our case to decertify was to make sure our players can play football. If that means we get an injunction now or next month -- as long as we have the ability to play football in the fall, that's what we want for ourselves and our fans."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league had no comment.

Also Monday, Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said he will seek to eliminate the NFL's antitrust exemption for broadcasting contracts. That exemption, which allows the NFL to sign TV contracts on behalf of all teams, helped to transform the league into the economic powerhouse it is today.

But the committee's chairman, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, indicated he would not take up the legislation.

If an injunction is granted, the NFL is likely to play the 2011 season with no salary cap, using the same restrictions on player movement the league had in 2010, The Washington Post reported. Sources told the newspaper that the league would use that system since the players agreed to it in the last CBA and therefore it might withstand an antitrust challenge.

In 2010, only players with six years of service were eligible for unrestricted free agency and all other players were considered restricted free agents. In a normal capped year, players needed only four years to gain unrestricted status.

This offseason, NFL teams protected themselves by giving restricted tenders to numerous players, who likely would be unrestricted free agents if a CBA had been agreed upon.

Along with no salary cap, there wouldn't be a salary floor under an uncapped year. Also, the "final eight" rules would again be in effect, placing restrictions on signing free agents for the eight teams that played in the divisional round.

It could take a month for there to be a ruling on the union's injunction request, and antitrust judgments should take longer.

However, even if the lockout is lifted by injunction, the NFL could appeal the ruling and ultimately shut down the sport again.

Bob Batterman, the NFL's lead outside counsel, predicted that the lockout, even if lifted temporarily, would return until there's a deal.

"There may be some sloppiness this week in terms of injunctions and stays," Batterman told The Wall Street Journal. "When it all plays out, the lockout will remain in place and the union will be back at the bargaining table."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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