NFL labor: Next season would be played without salary cap if lockout is lifted

March 13, 2011

Next season almost certainly would be played without a salary cap if NFL players succeed in their attempt to lift the lockout put in place by team owners.

Players are seeking an injunction in federal court in Minneapolis to try to lift the lockout, which went into effect Saturday after labor talks between the league and union collapsed Friday. Players decertified their union Friday and filed a 52-page antitrust lawsuit against the owners.

If that injunction request by the players is granted, the sport would reopen for business and the league would have to put work rules in place. Sources from throughout the sport on both sides of the dispute said over the weekend that the system the league would enact at that point would be very likely to be the same system that was in effect last season, when there was no salary cap in the final year of the just-expired labor agreement between the NFL and the players’ union.

That would mean there would be no player-payroll maximum or minimum for NFL teams. Players with expired contracts would need six years of NFL service time to be eligible for unrestricted free agency, rather than the four seasons required when the salary cap system was in effect; players with expired contracts and three to five seasons of NFL experience would be restricted free agents. Each team would have an extra transition-player tag, in addition to the one franchise-player or transition-player designation allowed per club under the salary cap system, to restrict players’ movement in free agency, and there would be limits on the free agent activity of last season’s final eight playoff teams.

The reason that system would be used, sources said, is that it might have a better chance of withstanding an antitrust challenge by the players, given that the union previously agreed to those rules for an uncapped year in collective bargaining. Attorneys for the players’ side have said they would challenge in court any rules put in place by the league if the lockout is lifted.

Those on the players’ side said Friday they expected a ruling to be made on their request for an injunction within three to four weeks. If the request is granted, the league could appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. So it would be possible for the lockout to be lifted by an injunction, putting the sport back in operation, and then restored on appeal, shutting things down again.

As long as the lockout remains in effect, teams cannot sign players to contracts or trade players. Coaches are prohibited from having contact with players and the sport’s drug-testing program is not in effect. Players would not be paid next season if the lockout remains in effect.

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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