Editor's note: The NFL's request to have a stay of Monday's ruling to lift the lockout was denied by Judge Susan R. Nelson on Wednesday night.
Let me start by stating the obvious: In the world in which I live, if I'm driving down the street and I see some red, flashing lights in my rearview mirror, I pull over to the side of the road.
If an officer approaches my car, tells me I was speeding and begins writing me a ticket, I don't roll my eyes and say, "Whatever, I don't recognize the validity of your radar devices or even acknowledge that you have jurisdiction."
And when I see the print on the ticket advising me that I must pay or appear before a judge to plead my case, I don't turn it into a paper airplane, throw it back at the officer and gloat, "I'm just going to get this overturned on appeal."
I live in this charming New World democracy called the United States of America, where we have a relatively enlightened legal system and a process for punishing those who blatantly disobey or disregard the laws of the land. I may not agree with every law on the books, but I am obligated to respect those laws and the people who enforce them, and I try to teach my children to do the same.
Right now, I'm having a hard time explaining to my kids what the hell the NFL owners are doing, and why they seem to feel emboldened to ignore a direct order from a federal judge.
I know the NFL is a big deal to many of you, and the league sometimes seems to operate as if it is its own, all-powerful entity. However, the degree to which a large portion of the public – and, more troubling, a high percentage of people in my business – is shrugging at the owners' behavior since U.S. District Court Judge Susan Nelson's order lifting the lockout came down Monday afternoon blows my mind.
Judge Nelson's 89-page ruling didn't specifically outline an immediate timetable for the resumption of free agency, trades and normal offseason activities, but it was hardly ambiguous. Four words at the bottom of the ruling – "the lockout is enjoined" – made it abundantly clear what she was decreeing.
Nelson ruled that, in the wake of the NFL Players Association's decision to decertify, the owners were not allowed to prevent their employees from coming to work while the Brady et al antitrust lawsuit plays out in her court. She concluded in her decision to grant the players' injunction that they would face "irreparable harm" under such a scenario and that they had a "fair chance of prevailing" at trial.
The NFL reacted by saying it would "seek a stay from Judge Nelson pending an expedited appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals," which was certainly within its legal rights. The rest of the league's behavior, however, has ranged from absurdly arrogant to outright criminal.
In an email to profootballtalk.com, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said, "We do not intend to start the league year until we have had an opportunity to seek a stay." Loosely translated: We don't like your decision, and we're going to do our best to ignore it until we get some legal relief.
Wow. I realize that the owners are rich, powerful people, and some of them are poor losers, but that's a pretty bold reaction to a clear-cut legal beatdown.
On Tuesday morning, various NFL players across the country exercised their legal rights by showing up at their respective team facilities and reporting for offseason workouts. Most were allowed to enter but were denied access to the weight room and other areas. Many teams kept coaches and front-office employees away from the players – continuing a lockout-imposed edict from ownership – and strength and conditioning coaches were made scarce as well. The Giants allowed defensive lineman Chris Canty(notes) to work out Tuesday but changed their mind and closed the weight room on Wednesday.
It seems pretty obvious that the Seahawks were in contempt of court. I'm not saying Judge Nelson will necessarily respond by issuing an order for owner Paul Allen's arrest, but I have a pretty strong suspicion she won't react kindly to such behavior. And the image of an ultra-wealthy owner in handcuffs would go a long way toward illustrating a basic tenet of our democracy.
When parties flout court orders and show a complete disrespect for the legal system, judges are not amused. Often, they bring down their gavels and remind the offenders of the force of those laws in a very punitive and non-subtle way. I have a feeling Her Honor is already aware that the court's authority has been disregarded, and the Seahawks – and the NFL in general – may be in for a harsh reality check.
I believe a legitimate argument can be made that, unless and until a stay is granted, any team that doesn't allow its players to conduct business as usual is in contempt of Judge Nelson's order. While the NFL will contend that it has a right to delay the start of the "league year" further into the offseason, I think it's pretty obvious that Judge Nelson's ruling called for an immediate end to the lockout and the "irreparable harm" it was causing to the players who requested the injunction.
Without the official beginning of the league year, there can be no trades, free-agent signings or roster bonuses. Players are also being denied workout bonuses, though anyone who has showed up at team facilities the past two days and been denied access to the weight room should have a very strong case for recovering that money eventually. This is why, on Tuesday, the players requested that Nelson declare an immediate start to the league year, and the way the owners have behaved in the interim can't be hurting the players' chances of succeeding.
When Judge Nelson "enjoined" the lockout, I believe she was calling for a return to the state of affairs that existed before March 12, when the owners imposed the conditions that provoked the players to seek injunctive relief. Before the lockout, the league year was set to begin almost immediately. Combined with the fact that on April 27 of any other recent offseason, players would be allowed (and, of course, encouraged by their employers) to participate in offseason training activities, it's hard to imagine that Judge Nelson won't conclude that her specific wishes are being violated.
The league's attitude seems to be: So what? We think we're right. And the owners obviously believe they have a decent chance of getting away with it.
Perhaps the NFL will procure the stay it seeks before the end of the week, either from Judge Nelson or (more likely) the Eighth Circuit, and all of this will be moot. Yet no matter what goes down, this disrespect for the law is quite disturbing.
We always hear that players are role models – indeed, this is the moral justification behind the highly acclaimed personal-conduct policy that commissioner Roger Goodell strengthened shortly after he took the job and has since presided over without appellate review from outside parties. He has been The Sheriff, and players who violate the law – or are charged with crimes, or in some cases even accused of crimes without being charged – routinely feel his wrath in a conspicuously chastened manner.
Yet when the owners self-righteously scoff at a federal judge's ruling, basically going about their business as if it didn't exist while searching for another legal life-preserver, what kind of message are they sending to America's impressionable minds?
You may think this behavior is acceptable because management is always right and players are greedy and your favorite team is part of your identity – but it isn't. The law is the law, and the people charged with deciding it deserve our respect and deference, even if we don't agree with their decisions.
I know the owners have achieved some incomprehensible legal victories before – the Maurice Clarett decision, for example, in which a federal appeals court ruled the league essentially has the right to age-discriminate – but they lost this one, and there's no instant-replay review to bail them out.
It's time for the owners to honor Judge Nelson's edict by ending this lockout immediately – or to face the consequences.
- Susan Nelson