NFL players poised to decertify union, could seek injuction to block lockout

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 12:45 AM

NFL players are poised to decertify their union Thursday and may immediately seek a court injunction to prevent teams from locking them out when their collective bargaining agreement expires, sources familiar with the preparations said Wednesday.

Both sides were making contingency plans for a confrontation that would begin Thursday barring last-minute developments in their negotiations over a new labor deal that neither side expected, according to sources on both sides of the dispute. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deliberations publicly.

Only a postponement of Thursday's 11:59 p.m. bargaining deadline or a last-minute shift in strategy could change both sides' plans, the sources said. Owners could lock out players one minute later, as early as midnight Friday.

The central issue in the labor dispute is how owners and players should share the sport's approximately $9 billion in annual revenue. The owners also want to install a wage scale for rookies and extend the regular season to 18 games.

Owners met Wednesday afternoon and evening at a hotel in Chantilly near Dulles Airport. That meeting came after negotiators for the league and union met with a federal mediator for about four hours in downtown Washington. Representatives of the owners met again Wednesday night with the mediator, George H. Cohen, and the negotiations are scheduled to resume Thursday morning.

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said the full ownership group did not vote on a lockout when it met for about three hours.

"We didn't break the room with a lockout vote," Irsay said. "It was just an update. Owners were able to ask questions. . . I never have expectations because it changes. It's a chess board that moves around and things change."

Greg Aiello, the NFL's senior vice president of public relations, said after the full ownership meeting: "There were no decisions made. No actions were taken, and we'll continue to go through the mediation process."

But some officials said no formal lockout vote by the owners was required because they previously authorized their bargaining committee to act as it sees fit.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, lead negotiator Jeff Pash and the owners on the bargaining committee met for about an hour after the full ownership meeting.

Several owners on the bargaining committee declined to comment as they left their meeting. Others in the sport said a lockout was virtually certain unless it is blocked by a court injunction.

Pash said before the meeting at Cohen's office that an extension of the bargaining deadline was possible. "I think we have to see where we are," he said. "We've said that's an option. So we're not taking anything off the table."

It was not clear Wednesday night whether Cohen would ask the league and union to postpone their bargaining deadline. A lockout by the owners would begin once the current agreement expires, sources said.

By then, it appears the players are likely to have decertified the NFL Players Association, putting it out of business as their bargaining agent. That would enable them to file antitrust litigation against the owners.

Sources said seeking the request for an injunction likely would be made to U.S. District Court Judge David S. Doty, part of an attempt by players to keep jurisdiction over the case in Doty's Minneapolis courtroom. Doty, who has overseen the NFL's labor deal since the system of free agency and a salary cap was established in the early 1990s, has issued rulings supporting players over the years, including one Tuesday that declared the NFL's television contract improper.

The request for an injunction could come Thursday, according to sources. It is unclear how quickly Doty would rule on such a request. The league already has filed an unfair labor practice charge against the union with the National Labor Relations Board that could complicate players' plans to decertify the union. The NLRB is investigating the charge.

Numerous sources said the owners were prepared for a lockout beginning Friday. Some legal experts have said a lockout after the union decertifies could be risky for the owners because that move could be used against them in antitrust litigation, with damages at stake. But other experts have said the owners shutting down their business after decertification might be the least risky thing to do, because there would be no union to lock out.

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