Judge David Doty, who has been weighing in on NFL issues for years, reversed the ruling by Special Master Stephen Burbank that NFL owners were entitled to have the $4 billion in television money allotted to them for the 2011 season in the event of a full season unaffected by labor strife.
Of course, since labor strife is coming (most likely in the form of a lockout later this week when the current league year ends), giving the owners that money anyway was the equivalent of putting all the leverage in the hands of the owners by giving them the money they need to get through the year without player costs getting in the way.
The networks would eventually want that money back, but in documents recently released in the Burbank ruling, it was revealed that there was no absolute timeline in which the owners would have to repay the money -- the Burbank ruling indicates that both sides would negotiate a "good-faith return" of those funds.
Where Burbank's ruling got weird was in the fact that he basically admitted that the owners made TV deals with ESPN and NBC in 2010 with lockout insurance in mind; but since the NFLPA could not prove that the owners also took less money upfront in order to guarantee that those funds be lockout-proof (which was the NFLPA's contention all along), Burbank would nor enjoin those funds.
For whatever reason (and we don't yet know what that reason is, since the decision just came down), Doty saw it differently. He ruled that the owners were in violation with the contracts they agreed to in 2010, and his ruling reportedly prevents the owners from tapping into that $4 billion hill of money in the event of a lockout.
Here's the language in a nutshell:
It is hereby ordered that:
1. The court adopts the special master's "recommendations for relief" paragraphs 1 and 2, see Op. 47, as there is no objection to these findings and recommendations before the court;
2. The court overrules the special master's findings as to the NFL's breach of the SSA (Stipulation and Settlement Agreement) relating to its contracts with DirecTV, CBS, FOX, NBC, and ESPN, and holds that the NFL breached the SSA as to those contracts; and
3. The court orders that a hearing be held concerning relief to be granted to the Players arising from the NFL's breach of the SSA. The hearing shall consider the award of both money damages and equitable relief, including injunction. District of Minnesota Local Rule 7.1(b)
Dated: March 1, 2011
David S. Doty
United States District Court
In layman's terms, the owners just lost every bit of incentive to lock the players out -- if there's no football, they get no TV money. They will undoubtedly appeal the reversal, but with this smack in the face combined with the NFLPA's almost certain move to decertify as soon as it possibly can, there's a great many reasons for the owners to go back to the continued mediation sessions and try to either extend the CBA or make a counter-offer to the NFLPA offer they found so repugnant when they thought they had it all in the bank.
In short, we all just got a little bit closer to seeing a full season of football in 2011. And no matter how it happens, that's all anyone really wants.