National Football League team owners locked out the league’s players Saturday, shutting down professional football for the first time in 24 years and plunging the nation’s most popular and prosperous sport into a time of uncertainty.
The owners acted after labor talks with the players’ union collapsed Friday afternoon and players decertified the NFL Players Association, moving the bitter dispute into the courts and ending an era of NFL labor peace that had lasted since players went on strike in 1987.
Players left the downtown Washington office where talks were held late Friday afternoon, breaking off negotiations with the NFL and team owners over a new pact whose central issue is how to divide the $9 billion in annual revenue generated by the league. The two sides met Friday for a 16th day of mediated talks before reaching a stalemate.
The owners’ lockout was confirmed by a source shortly after midnight Saturday, soon after the labor deal expired. With the regular season about six months away, it is impossible to predict whether the labor strife will cost players and the league any games.
Decertifying the NFL Players Association enabled the players to file antitrust litigation against the owners, which they did late Friday, with superstar quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees among the 10 named plaintiffs. Lawyers for the players also announced that they are seeking an injunction to lift the lockout. The case is likely to end up before Minneapolis-based U.S. District Judge David S. Doty, who has overseen the NFL’s labor pact since 1993.
It is not clear when a judge will act on the injunction request, but a union official said it probably would not be for three or four weeks.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in brief remarks that the union had “walked away” from the mediated talks, which he described as the “fairest and fastest” way of resolving the dispute.
“They’ve chosen to pursue another strategy, and that is their choice,” Goodell said. He predicted, however, that the issues eventually would be resolved at the bargaining table. John Mara, co-owner of the New York Giants, was harsher in tone, criticizing the NFLPA for refusing to alter its position on key issues. “Their position has quite literally been ‘take it or leave it,’ ” Mara said.
The union’s executive director, DeMaurice Smith, said as he left the talks at about 4:40 p.m. that the union had given owners until 5 p.m. to turn over 10 years’ worth of audited financial records needed, the union contends, to verify claims that the current financial arrangement is untenable. The owners did not comply.
“I’m sad for our fans,” Smith told reporters later. “I’m sad for our players . . . [but] I’m proud of the [players] who have devoted themselves to be leaders.” He said the league’s contention that the union was more interested in litigation than negotiation all along “flies in the face of reason, flies in the face of facts and is simply untrue.”
The threat of a work stoppage brought immediate reaction Friday from fans, bar owners and the gambling industry, among others, who said it would have a huge financial and emotional impact.
More than 150,000 people had signed a “Block the Lockout” petition circulated by diehard fans. Eric Hoffman, who runs a fan Web site devoted to the Minnesota Vikings called purplepride.org, said he tailgates on game Sundays with 60-70 other season-ticket holders, some of whom fly in from other countries.
“Any threat to [fans’] fall ritual is taken very, very seriously,” Hoffman said. “They are very angry that someone is messing with their tradition.”
Sandra Naing, owner of the District’s Mezza Luna restaurant, which hosts an NFL brunch to heavy crowds every Sunday during football season, added: “One of our regulars said to me, ‘I can do without my wife, I can do without my girlfriend, but I can’t do without football.’ This is going to have a big impact on bars that show the games . . . it’s going to hurt them a lot.”
The Clark Bar and Grill near Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field closes on Sundays except when the Steelers play, yet it pulls in more than a third of its annual sales on those game days, manager Joe Lamatrice said on Friday.
“It’s all Steelers fans, black and gold from the time we open until the time we close,” Lamatrice said. “If there is no football, it’s going to be just a huge blow to everyone. So many people here plan their days around it. They look forward to football all year round.”
The gambling industry is also bracing for a painful hit, according to Chris David, sports editorial director at vegasinsider.com. “The NFL is king,” he said. “It’s probably 25 to 30 percent of your handle [wages taken]. If you take that away, it’s going to hurt. But hopefully people will turn to something else.”
In the negotiations, progress was made toward settling the key revenue dispute, according to officials for both sides. It just wasn’t enough.
Under the most recent deal, owners received $1.3 billion off the top and players received 60 percent of the rest. The owners originally sought another $1 billion before the players’ share is calculated. Smith said the union rejected a final offer by the league Friday that would have credited team owners with an additional $325 million per year. The league offered to split the remaining $650 million-per-year difference between the two sides, Smith said.
Vonnie Holliday, the Redskins’ player representative, said in an interview on ESPN that “we want a fair CBA. That’s it. The owners are saying that they’re losing money and they want 18 percent back. Okay, if you are losing money, then in fact show us that. We are not opposed to restructuring, but they refused to do that.”
But the NFL said in a prepared statement that “the union left a very good deal on the table.” It said the offer included new year-round health and safety rules; retention of the current 16-game regular season, with four preseason games, for at least two years, with future changes subject to the approval of the league and union; and a new fund for retired players, with $82 million contributed by owners over the next two years.
The NFL also had proposed to lengthen the regular season to 18 games, impose a wage scale for rookies, and blood test players for human growth hormone. All those issues were expected to be resolved once there was a deal on the money.
If a judge sides with the players and agrees to lift the lockout, the sport would continue operating while the labor dispute is litigated in court. But any decision by a federal court judget could be appealed.
The league already has challenged the players’ decertification of the union in an unfair labor practice charge to the National Labor Relations Board last month.
Legal experts say it’s impossible to predict precisely how the legal process will unfold, but they agree the NFL could face some major difficulties in federal court. One expert said all professional sports leagues — except Major League Baseball, which has an antitrust exemption — are inherently vulnerable to antitrust challenges.
Sports leagues “are continually found to violate antitrust laws because they do,” said an attorney who has worked on NFL legal matters. “The question becomes how and when do non-statutory labor laws protect collective bargaining? That’s where a lot of litigation has occurred.”