NFL lockout: Is David S. Doty the most influential man in pro football?

Some say David S. Doty jump-started the NFL talks. He has so angered owners that they want to eliminate his oversight role during current contract talks.
Some say David S. Doty jump-started the NFL talks. He has so angered owners that they want to eliminate his oversight role during current contract talks. (Layne Kennedy/1992 Getty Images Photo)
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 12:54 AM

The most influential man in professional football, at least in recent days, is not NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. It is not players' union leader DeMaurice Smith. It just may be an 81-year-old federal judge in Minneapolis who fought unions for two decades as a lawyer, but now is considered a messiah by some NFL players and a pariah by the league's owners.

Some believe David S. Doty broke the bargaining stalemate between players and owners when he ruled March 1 that the NFL negotiated a $4 billion lockout fund from television networks "to advance its own interests and harm the interests of the players." He threatened to assess damages against the league.

That ruling and other high-profile decisions by Doty have so angered owners that they have made the judge himself one of the key issues in the current contract talks. They are trying to oust him as overseer of the NFL's collective bargaining issues, and may be willing to make concessions in other areas to accomplish that.

In past court filings, the owners have accused Doty of bias on behalf of players - a charge Doty's colleagues call ludicrous.

If the two sides fail to reach a new collective bargaining agreement by Friday or extend their talks again, the players are expected to dissolve the union so they can file an anti-trust lawsuit in federal court. By virtue of his deep involvement in NFL labor matters for more than 20 years, the case is likely to land in Doty's courtroom.

"The players are using [Doty] as a weapon just as the owners are going to use the lockout," said Charles B. Craver, a professor of labor and negotiations at George Washington University's law school. "It does give them some leverage, it definitely does. If this goes to court, [the sport's current rules] arguably could all be thrown out."

It's unclear whether the dispute will get that far. Goodell, Smith and their negotiating teams met in Washington Tuesday for a 13th day of mediated talks, with Doty, a former Marine and high school football player, still a critical issue. One person on the owners' side said recently he didn't think the league would agree to any labor settlement that includes ongoing oversight by Doty.

That person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, said ousting Doty ranked behind only the division of revenue in importance to the owners.

Doty's associates agree that Doty has held a position of unusual power over the players and owners, but dispute the suggestion that his decisions have reflected any favoritism. Doty declined to comment through a spokesperson.

"That's an inaccurate perception," said Cary B. Johnson, an attorney who served as a law clerk for Doty in 1987 and 1988. "He is fastidiously fair and balanced in his decisions. He was very concerned about following the law, and getting it right."

Johnson and others who know Doty said the judge has earned a reputation for impartiality, decorum and formality in his court room; they say he wears coats, dress shirts and slacks to work even on Saturdays. He also has become known for offering attorneys ample time to argue their cases.

"One of the things about David Doty: He was a Marine, he's a straight shooter," said Raymond A. Haik, the attorney who hired Doty out of law school and remains friends with him to this day. "The NFL didn't exactly go in the tank after the first [case]. They prospered."

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