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Judge's ruling could force league, players to talk

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NEW ORLEANS – NFL fans have to start cheering for Judge Susan Nelson of the Minnesota District Court. Right now, she's your only hope for a quick resolution to the labor dispute between the players and the owners.

After Nelson hears arguments from both sides regarding the lockout during Brady v. NFL on April 6, here is a devilishly wonderful scenario she could come up with to hammer both sides and really force them to settle their differences. This idea comes courtesy of a clever lawyer who has read the legal briefs from both the players and the owners so far.

Nelson could declare that the lockout by owners is illegal, that the NFL Players Association is not a union and then hold her decision in abeyance for 90 days. What that means is that the league wouldn't have very strong grounds to fight her decision in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. It would also mean that the players wouldn't have the ability to get new contracts signed until July, hurting their chances to get rich deals in free agency.

In other words, both sides would have plenty of incentive to work out a new collective bargaining agreement.

Right now, that's what the owners and players need – a legal kick in the rear. While both sides would like to talk and have said as much publicly, they can't get it done for legal reasons. The owners want to talk in mediation, which puts the players in a bind. The players want to talk in court over a settlement, which puts the owners in a bind.

"We want to [get a deal] as fast as possible, but we also recognize that we had to be prepared for other alternatives," said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during Tuesday's league meetings, reciting the kind of double talk that fans have become infuriated by over the past few weeks and months when it comes to the labor negotiations.

Truth is, both sides deserve to get slapped and Nelson is the only one who can do it in a forceful way right now. Currently, this circus is being run by lawyers, guys who are experts in turning nuance into billion-dollar judgments.

View photo

Jones with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross on Tuesday.
(Gerald Herbert/AP Photo)

What needs to happen is for owners such as Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft, Art Rooney II and John Mara to get in a room with Peyton Manning(notes), Drew Brees(notes), Tom Brady(notes), Vincent Jackson(notes) and Mike Vrabel(notes) and discuss their differences. The owners need to hear that the players feel disrespected. The players need to hear that the owners have serious financial concerns. The players need to tell the owners that they can't take a system that changes the way the players get paid from a percentage of the gross to a fixed cost.

Do that, and many of the other issues in this problem could fade away.

Instead, both sides are waiting for April 6, hoping their side will prevail.

"Nothing is going to happen for either side until [Nelson] decides the injunction issue," one NFL lawyer said.

True, but even if the players win an injunction, the league is set to go the distance in the legal battle. On Monday, the league put outside attorneys Gregg Levy, Bob Batterman, David Boies and Paul Clement on display to explain their arguments to the media. While much of the legalese went over the head of the many reporters involved in this situation, there was an obvious bottom line: The NFL hired the four lawyers with the sole intent of fighting the union for as long as necessary. For instance, Batterman talked about going through months of work with the National Labor Relations Board over whether the NFLPA can really decertify.

If that battle goes on for months, players will watch as their careers die on the vine. The short-term need to get signed to a new contract and get working with a team will disappear like so many legal briefs into filing cabinets throughout the courthouses of this nation.

The owners will gain short-term leverage over the players by the day. In turn, the long-term fight will get uglier for the owners if the players are able to gain victories in the court.

In the meantime, there is one woman who can solve the whole thing with a swing of her hammer and a judicious opinion. Nelson could send both sides reeling, forcing the two into talks. That's what should be happening because, if nothing else, the owners are right about one thing.

This deal is not going to be settled without discussion between both sides. It is not really going to get settled in the courts, at least not quickly.

But a settlement can be pushed by Judge Nelson.

Here's hoping she can get it done.

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