As NFL's billion-dollar mediation with St. Louis begins, team owners could wage civil war

For the NFL and owner Stan Kroenke, the watershed moment has arrived in the Los Angeles Rams relocation lawsuit.

With a trial set to begin on Jan. 10, the whiff of a courtroom war is in the air. Not only between the city of St. Louis and the NFL, but possibly between Kroenke and his fellow team owners. And this week looks very much like the tipping point. If the NFL owners pull back, it likely means they'll write a very big check and agree to share the pain of the financial uppercut Kroenke appears destined to absorb.

But there’s another possibility: that this entire thing is going to turn into an all-encompassing battle with multiple fronts — and an outcome that would essentially guarantee an every-franchise-for-themselves breakdown and the wildest spate of legal haymakers since Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the NFL went to war over sponsorship deals back in 1995 and filed lawsuits against each other totaling over $1 billion.

Yes, this could all go that badly, to the point that Kroenke and the league’s other owners could suffer a staggering court judgment and end up suing each other over who is ultimately responsible for the financial wreckage.

Then again, everyone involved could also come to their senses and figure out a settlement — which is precisely what may happen in the next few days.

In a nutshell, Tuesday is slated to begin a window of mediation between the NFL and a collective of plaintiffs, including the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County and the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority. At issue is a 4-year-old lawsuit brought against the NFL, its owners and Kroenke for breach of contract, fraud, unjust enrichment and other allegations tied to the Rams' relocation to Los Angeles.

To date, the courts have largely sided against the NFL, setting up a trial in St. Louis that could ultimately render a massive judgment against both the league as a whole and Kroenke and other owners involved in the process of approving the move. With that leverage in hand, the NFL and its attorneys will meet in a conference room this week, with the St. Louis plaintiffs in another conference room. Starting on Tuesday, a mediator will pass between them and attempt to build a settlement that allows all sides to walk away and avoid a courtroom.

But for the NFL, there is reportedly a large issue looming. Despite the league’s other owners believing they had been indemnified against legal fees and damages by Kroenke — which would effectively make him responsible for paying out the full amount of a judgment or settlement — multiple reports have suggested the Rams owner wants to share the loss. And a Sports Business Journal report last week took it a step further, citing an email sent from Kroenke’s legal camp to the rest of the league.

The message? If the NFL won’t agree to help Kroenke foot a settlement bill and make the entire lawsuit go away, he may break away from the league and unilaterally settle his portion of the litigation, leaving the rest of the NFL to go to trial.

Those, as they say, are fighting words. And it’s not often you see one NFL owner direct them at essentially the rest of his league fraternity.

But actions matter more than threats in an email. And that’s what this week will be about. If the league decides to yield and help Kroenke carry the load, the path to a settlement looks far more realistic. If Kroenke’s fellow owners balk at pitching in and making the suit go away, then the entire mediation could unravel and everyone involved could head to trial in less than two months.

All of which makes this a pretty important week. Because it’s not often the league gets pushed into a corner by a city. And it’s even more rare for that posture to leave its billionaires raising their fists at each other.