April 6 hearing set on NFL lockout

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2011; 3:55 PM

A federal court judge Monday scheduled an April 6 hearing on NFL players' request to lift the lockout that went into effect Saturday.

The hearing, set for 10:30 a.m. ET, will be before U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in St. Paul, Minn., instead of federal court judge David S. Doty, who has overseen the NFL's labor issues since 1993.

Labor talks between the players' union and the league collapsed Friday. The players dissolved their labor union that afternoon and filed a 52-page antitrust lawsuit against the NFL team owners.

If the players' request for a preliminary injunction is granted, the lockout would be lifted and the sport would reopen for business. The league would have to establish work rules, likely the same ones that were in place last season, which was played without a salary cap. Either side could appeal Nelson's decision to a higher court.

People on both sides of the dispute had believed the case was likely to end up before Doty, even though his official oversight of the sport's labor deal ended with Friday's expiration of the collective bargaining agreement. But on Monday it appeared that Nelson would hear both the injunction request and the antitrust lawsuit.

Doty has on several occasions sided with players. In 2009, an appeals court rejected a request by the league to terminate his oversight of the NFL's labor matters. The league had argued that Doty had created an appearance of bias in favor of the players. Doty's colleagues say he is scrupulously impartial.

Earlier this month, Doty ruled that the structure of the league's contracts with television networks violated the sport's 1993 settlement agreement. In what was viewed widely as a victory for the players' side, Doty wrote that he would hold a hearing to determine damages and other possible remedies. That ruling jeopardized the owners' ability to receive approximately $4 billion in TV money next season even if the lockout is in effect then.

The union had appealed the case to Doty after the NFL's special master, University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephen B. Burbank, refused to bar the owners from receiving the TV money during a lockout.

The league downplayed the significance of Doty's ruling in the TV case, and people on the owners' side of the dispute have said that the owners could withstand even a season-long lockout without the TV money. But the ruling by Doty did seem to move the bargaining leverage at least temporarily in favor of the players' side. Negotiations failed to produce a settlement, however.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, one of the 10 named litigants in the players' lawsuit, said during an afternoon conference call with reporters that the players' side is not concerned that Doty apparently will not hear the case.

"To us that's not an issue," Brees said. "That's something the owners seemed to be concerned about. For us it's about the facts and it's about the law, and we believe those are on our side."

Kevin Mawae, the former center who was president of the NFL Players Association before it was dissolved, said:"A s long as we have the ability to play football in the fall, that's what's meaningful to our fans and us."

Mawae said it was "a fabrication and a lie" that players walked away from the negotiations. He and Brees called the owners' proposals insufficient. Mawae said an 18-game season "is not going to happen" as part of any eventual settlement.

Through a spokesman, the NFL declined to comment.

The players declined to comment on a report by ESPN that top college players are being discouraged from attending the NFL draft in New York next month. Such a boycott has been under discussion for quite some time. It apparently would not affect plans for the draft to be held as scheduled.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, announced Monday that he would introduce legislation to repeal the NFL's broadcast TV antitrust exemption.

"At a time when the economy is struggling and the NFL has chosen to lock out its players, it is particularly inappropriate to allow the league to benefit from a special antitrust exemption," Conyers said in a written statement. "The lockout has been estimated to take at least $5.1 billion out of local economies around the nation."

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