NFL lockout: April 6 hearing scheduled

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; D05

A federal judge in Minnesota on Monday scheduled a hearing for early next month on the request by NFL players to lift the lockout imposed by team owners.

But the April 6 hearing on the players' preliminary injunction request will take place before U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, not in front of her colleague, David S. Doty, who has overseen the NFL's labor situation since 1993.

The development could be significant because the league previously made an unsuccessful attempt to have Doty's oversight of the sport's labor matters terminated, accusing him of appearing partial to players.

"It's not clear that it won't end up before Judge Doty," said Gabriel Feldman, the director of the sports law program at Tulane University. "I think it's still possible. Assuming it doesn't end up before him, it's at worst a preliminary and small win for the owners. They clearly did not expect to win anything before Judge Doty. They clearly would expect to lose everything before Judge Doty and then appeal."

Barring a switch, Nelson would hear not only the players' request for a preliminary injunction, but the antitrust complaint filed by players against NFL owners Friday.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, one of the 10 named plaintiffs in the players' lawsuit, said during an afternoon conference call with reporters that the players' side was not concerned whether Doty hears their 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 last week, said: "As long as we have the ability to play football in the fall, that's what's meaningful to our fans and us."

The league declined to comment through a spokesman.

Labor talks between the union and the league collapsed Friday. The players decertified their union Friday afternoon and filed their antitrust lawsuit. The lockout took effect Saturday, minutes after the collective bargaining agreement expired.

If the players' request for an injunction is granted, the lockout would be lifted and the sport would reopen for business. The league would have to put work rules in place, most likely the same ones that governed last season, which was played without a salary cap. If the injunction is granted, the league could appeal and seek a stay of it in an attempt to keep the lockout in effect.

Nelson was appointed to the federal bench in St. Paul in December after 10 years as a magistrate judge in the same courthouse. She was part of the team of lawyers that won a multi-billion dollar settlement against the tobacco industry for the state of Minnesota in 1998.

People on both sides of the dispute had expected the case to end up in front of Doty, though his official oversight of the sport's labor deal ended with Friday's expiration of the collective bargaining agreement.

In 2009, an appeals court rejected a request by the league to terminate Doty's oversight of the NFL's labor matters. Earlier this month, Doty ruled that the league's contracts with television networks violated the sport's 1993 settlement agreement, a decision that jeopardized the owners' plan to receive about $4 billion in TV payments if the lockout is still in effect next season.

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

The players' side declined to comment on a report by ESPN that top college players are being discouraged from attending the NFL draft next month in New York. Such a boycott has been under discussion for weeks.

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

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