Four retired NFL players, including Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller and Pro Bowl running back Priest Holmes, filed a federal class action, antitrust lawsuit against the NFL on Monday seeking to end the current lockout.
Eller v. NFL, obtained by Yahoo! Sports, is similar to the current Brady, et al v. NFL. However, it is based on a potentially clever legal maneuver that could box the league into a corner and prove a significant development in ending pro football's nearly month-long labor impasse.
The former players' suit also covers draft-eligible prospects, who aren't represented by the NFL Players Association under the previous collective bargaining agreement. As such, these plaintiffs could potentially avoid one of the league's chief counterarguments against the Brady lawsuit – that the union illegally decertified.
"The owners say the union has unlawfully decertified and the union should be ordered to reconstitute and forced to sit at the bargaining table," lead attorney Michael Hausfeld of the Washington D.C.-based Hausfeld LLC told Y! Sports. "If you look at the last CBA, it represents the rookies that have been drafted and the rookies who have begun negotiating with teams."
Therefore, college players awaiting next month's draft are not represented by the union and can't be faulted for its decertification. However they are, Hausfeld argues, being affected by the lockout.
"These players have an antitrust claim," Hausfeld said. "They've essentially staked the pursuit of a career on being eligible for the NFL.
"The owners have shut down their potential employees through a concerted boycott," Hausfeld continued. "[The suit is] going to avoid the main thrust of the owners' defense and their argument that the matter should be settled by the [National Labor Relations Board] not in the courts."
The NFL said its "attorneys have not had an opportunity to review" the suit, which was filed in United States District Court for the District of Minnesota. The NFLPA was made aware of the suit prior to its filing, according to Hausfeld. It too has yet to respond with comment.
Hausfeld has made a career out of winning complicated lawsuits – that includes earning reparations for Holocaust survivors from Swiss banks. His firm is currently one of the lead councils in a suit filed by former college athletes such as Ed O'Bannon and Oscar Robertson against the NCAA for the unlawful use of their likenesses.
In the Eller case, Hausfeld believes a crack has been found in the NFL's armor.
"How silly is it to have a draft in April and then say, congratulations, you're locked out?" he asked.
By using the window between now and the start of the NFL draft on April 28, the NFL is exposed to this kind of argument.
The NFL, Hausfeld said, would have to work out a deal with the NFLPA or risk taking on an antitrust case without its top counterarguments. If the league were to lose, it would risk the basic structures of its business – the salary cap, the draft, free agency and so forth. It would be better off agreeing to a deal.
"We see something different," Hausfeld said. "[The NFL has] created more of a mess for themselves. If we can end the lockout and there is no union then they're going to individually negotiate with every player and former player.
"This is basically the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. Hopefully it forces everyone to the table."
That remains to be seen. Predicting how any lawsuit, let alone complicated antitrust arguments, will go is fruitless. The NFL has plenty of lawyers also.
For fans eager for any kind of solution or forced movement on the labor impasse though, this unexpected legal challenge is, at the very least, a potential positive.
- NFL Players Association