NFL files brief to court; players respond

Updated: May 2, 2011, 8:52 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Its players again barred from coming to work, the NFL told a federal appeals court Monday it believes the appeal over whether the lockout is legal can "readily be resolved" during the offseason.

The NFL filed a brief with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, arguing that the lockout should remain on hold permanently while the two sides hash things out in court.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court put U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson's order lifting the 48-day lockout on hold temporarily last week. The owners reinstated the lockout a few hours later and they want Nelson's order eventually overturned altogether.

In an 18-page brief, the NFL again argued that Nelson shouldn't have jurisdiction in the labor fight. The league's attorneys have repeatedly cited the Norris-LaGuardia Act, a Depression-era law they say bars federal courts from interfering in labor disputes on either side.

They again argued that lifting the lockout would result in the irreparable harm necessary to deserve a stay of Nelson's order.

The absence of a stay "would irreparably harm the NFL by undercutting its labor law rights and irreversibly scrambling the eggs of player-club transactions," the NFL's attorneys wrote. "Absent a stay, there will be trades, player signings, players cut under existing contracts, and a host of other changes in employment relationships" between hundreds of players and the 32 NFL teams.

The players responded later Monday with a letter to the 8th Circuit trying to "correct a misstatement" by the NFL in their brief.

The players countered the NFL's claim that the injunction was supported by "conclusory opinions" by explaining that they used sworn declarations by agents with "165 years of collective experience negotiating NFL players' contracts" and NFLPA attorney Richard Berthelsen, who has almost 40 years experience and "has witnessed previous occasions when the NFL Defendants operated without a collective bargaining agreement and suffered no harm."

Monday's filings are the latest salvos in the bitter fight over the $9 billion business.

Hours after NFL players started to pick up playbooks and talk with coaches for the first time in nearly two months on Friday, the lockout was reinstated when the appeals court granted a temporary stay of Nelson's April 25 order.

The appeals court must now decide whether to declare a more permanent stay until the appeals process is completed. That decision is expected sometime this week.

The same three judges who granted the NFL a temporary stay will rule on the request for a longer stay. Friday's 2-1 decision from a panel of the 8th Circuit was issued by judges Steven Colloton, Kermit Bye and Duane Benton. It included a lengthy dissent from Bye, a Democratic appointee, who suggested temporary stays should be issued only in emergencies.

Colloton and Benton, both Republican appointees, did not indicate how they were leaning. Rather, they stated their decision Friday was an administrative stay to allow them to decide on a longer stay.

The players need to convince one of the two Republican-appointed judges that the players will suffer irreparable harm if there is a longer stay. It has not been decided yet whether or not these three judges will rule on the entire appeal, which is expected to take six to eight weeks.

"[We] will announce the panel well in advance of the argument," 8th Circuit clerk Michael Gans told ProFootballTalk.com. "While many circuits keep this information internal until the week or day of the argument, it is our practice to announce the information about thirty days in advance. I believe this same practice will be followed in this case."

Though the players have argued there is no guarantee that can be wrapped up in time for the regular season, the NFL said the process -- thanks to a request for an expedited hearing -- is more a matter of weeks than months.

Still, the St. Louis Rams pushed back the deadline for renewing season tickets to June 1 because of the labor uncertainty.

The Rams announced on their website Monday that they had an altered payment plan beyond the June 1 deadline if there's no resolution to the labor dispute.

Fans that have deposited at least 10 percent of their payments by June 1, or who rolled over their playoff deposits from 2010, will be able to retain seats if they provide payment information that can be processed when the dispute is settled.

A Detroit Lions season-ticket holder from suburban Detroit, Bill LaFleur, said he's already renewed for a fourth year despite the uncertainty.

"It was due in a couple weeks and the Lions told me if I didn't pay it by the deadline, I could possibly lose my seat," LaFleur said.

Players have argued their own irreparable harm, which Nelson agreed with, by the postponement or cancellation of free agency, offseason workouts and the like.

The NFL said that's an exaggerated claim. Players, the league said, would not lose their opportunity to play for the team of their choice once the league year begins, even if that's in late June or early July instead of early May. That process usually starts in early March.

In a conference call with Atlanta Falcons season ticket holders, commissioner Roger Goodell again reiterated that he believes the quickest way to start the league year is to return to negotiation.

Goodell told the group that he believed progress was made in previous negotiation sessions.

"We should be sitting at the table working from that proposal," Goodell told the fans. "The general view is the faster we can get back into that mediation and discuss issues, the faster we can get back on the field.

"Unfortunately we've spent the last six or seven weeks in litigation, which is delaying things."

The NFL complained that Nelson ignored evidence that many players, including two of the 10 plaintiffs, Vincent Jackson and Logan Mankins, skipped team-organized workouts last offseason. Jackson and Mankins both held out well into the start of the 2010 season, the league noted, "indicating that missing time in the offseason is not irreparable harm."

The NFL also cited comments by players Ray Lewis and Wes Welker about their appreciation of extra free time now with the lockout in place and no mandatory minicamps or other offseason activities allowed to take place.

Welker said, "Let's do a lockout every year," according to the league's court filing.

Said Lewis after an autograph signing, according to the league: "To me, this is probably the greatest window of opportunity I've ever had in my life. It's been 25 years of my life that I've never had a summer to myself."

Attorneys for the players argued last week against a stay of Nelson's order, suggesting that the public and the players, with their short careers, are at far more risk when the business is stalled.

"Professional football is part of the fabric of American life," the attorneys wrote. "Because the uncontroverted record of evidence shows that the 2011 season could be canceled or significantly curtailed without an injunction in place, a stay may deprive the public of professional football altogether."

Information from ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas and The Associated Press was used in this report.

ALSO SEE