ST. LOUIS — After making apparent progress in negotiations to preserve the upcoming season, the NFL and its locked-out players were back in court Friday to argue about the legality of the sport’s nearly three-month shutdown.
Attorneys for the two sides presented oral arguments to a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. During a roughly 70-minute hearing, NFL attorney Paul Clement asked the judges to overturn a federal judge’s late-April decision to grant the players’ request for an injunction that lifted the lockout.
Theodore Olson, an attorney for the players, urged the judges to uphold U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson’s injunction ruling. The league re-imposed the lockout April 29 after the appellate court granted the NFL’s request for a temporary stay of Nelson’s injunction. The appeals court later extended that stay until it issues its ruling.
One of the judges, Kermit E. Bye, said at the conclusion of Friday’s hearing that the league and players should continue their attempts to negotiate a settlement.
“We will take this case and render a decision in due course,” Bye said. “We won’t, I might also say, be all that hurt that you’re leaving us out if you should go out and settle the case. But that’s up to you. But we will keep with our business and if that ends up with a decision, it’s probably something both sides are not going to like, but at least it will be a decision.”
The appeals court did not give a timetable for making a ruling. Legal experts have said they expect a decision in two to six weeks.
About 20 players attended Friday’s hearing.
“Really our only purpose here today was to show that it’s important to us and to represent our players and to show both the court and the public that it’s important to us and we want to get back to work,” said Adam Goldberg, a tackle for the St. Louis Rams.
Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, one of the named plaintiffs in the players’ antitrust lawsuit against the owners, also attended the hearing and said afterward: “Every guy in the league thinks it’s important that we get back to work, that we get an injunction on this lockout to get back to work. We’re trying to play a game that we love.”
DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the dissolved players’ union, was in attendance but declined to comment afterward. In what was perhaps a sign of the newfound spirit of cooperation between the two sides, Smith greeted NFL representatives warmly in court before the hearing began.
Smith and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, along with groups of players and owners, participated in talks in Chicago between dinnertime Tuesday and midday Thursday. Both sides declined to comment Friday on the specifics of the negotiations.
But George Atallah, the assistant executive director for external affairs for the NFL Players Association, said: “Anybody that believes that litigation or settlement, that there was a choice between the two, those people are wrong. We’re here today to try to lift the lockout so that players can play football. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that negotiations or settlement negotiations couldn’t continue. You saw that over the past couple days. It’s a false choice to think that one can happen over the other.”
Goodell, who was visiting troops Friday in Fort Bragg, N.C., told reporters that this week’s talks were “a positive sign,” according to the Associated Press.
“I would just tell you that both sides are committed to continuing the dialogue,” Goodell said, according to the AP. “In negotiations, you’re making different suggestions, recommendations and proposals from time to time. I think both sides will do that in a responsible fashion.”
When talks broke off in March, the two sides were about $10 million per team apart in their deliberations over annual salary cap figures — a divide of roughly $320 million league-wide in the first year of the proposed deal. The talks over money had evolved to salary-cap projections in the final stages before they broke down on March 11 and players were locked out March 12. The players dissolved the NFL Players Association and filed an antitrust lawsuit against the owners and the league.
Many people within the sport were buoyed by the resumption of talks and now seem convinced that both sides are focused on completing a deal in time to preserve the start of the regular season on Sept. 8.
If the NFL loses its appeal and the lockout is lifted in court, it would be forced to reopen for business under not-yet-announced rules for free agency. But two of the appellate judges wrote in granting the permanent stay that the league was likely to prevail in the appeal.