Special master decision could fund a lockout for owners

The decision that the NFL owners and Players Association were waiting for regarding the destination of millions of dollars in guaranteed TV money has come through -- and it's very bad news for the players, and fans of the game. The NFLPA created a case in which it charged that the owners negotiated in bad faith with the networks, accepting less money up front (and thus providing a smaller revenue pie to split) in exchange for guaranteed money on the event of a lockout. The NFLPA wanted that money put in an escrow account until an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement could be struck, but special master Stephen Burbank ruled Tuesday in favor of the owners in regard to the release of funds.

During a recent NFLPA media conference call, I asked NFLPA assistant executive director of external affairs George Atallah where the case stood, and what the decision would mean, especially how the owners having a war chest to fund a lockout would move the goalposts (so to speak) in the ongoing labor war.

"[It is] our belief that the networks negotiated the television contracts in order to gain leverage over the players in negotiations that we are arguing before a special master," Atallah said. "[This] goes against our contract. To answer your question as specifically as I can given ongoing litigation, we expect the case -- it was reported [Monday] -- we expect a decision from the special master sometime before the Super Bowl. Those are as many details as I can provide at this time.

"The deals that were cut -- the television contracts -- before this most recent
fantastic one with ESPN to extend the 'Monday Night Football' rights, they were done
guaranteeing the owners revenue next year even if there were no games played.

"So people can draw their own conclusions about what that means, and the league can talk about back-end credits for whatever that means, but clearly we're arguing that those contracts were made explicitly in an effort to gain leverage over the players."

In a statement released by both sides on Monday, it was announced that "NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and Commissioner Roger Goodell met today in New York to discuss a range of issues related to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. As part of a process to intensify negotiations, they agreed to hold a formal bargaining session with both negotiating teams on Saturday in the Dallas area. They also agreed to a series of meetings over the next few weeks, both formal bargaining sessions and smaller group meetings, in an effort to reach a new agreement by early March."

And while that's all well and good, the fact that the owners now have the money needed to dig in and wait the players out not only gives one side unfair advantage, it also sets up several needless complications -- a good sign that what we have here is a bad ruling.

The networks are now looking at paying millions of dollars for something that they cannot televise. The owners are going to hoard money in payment for services that cannot be rendered and a product that doesn't exist ... unless the plan from here on out is to use replacement players again. The players can now go full bore with the statement they've been making all along -- that in a time of unprecedented financial well-being for the league, all they've wanted to do was to keep the game going under the same parameters that have existed since 2006.

That's not what the owners want, but as the owners are basically in the position of taking free money -- kind of a sore subject when so many people have had their savings wiped out by corrupt corporations and financial managers -- the hearts and minds of the public will most likely swing to the players, if public sentiment isn't completely polluted by, as many have put it, "millionaires arguing with billionaires."

The circumstances are far more complicated that that, but that may be where we are.
Shortly after the ruling, the NFLPA released a statement:

The Special Master, who is appointed by a federal judge, found violations of the Reggie White Settlement agreement with respect to the NFL's negotiation of Lockout Insurance in its contracts with ESPN and NBC.

Although the Special Master awarded damages, the players intend to file an immediate and expedited appeal before the federal court in Minnesota.

The NFLPA has a few options beyond an appeal, and the invocation of the Reggie White Settlement Agreement is an interesting one. In 1989, the NFLPA decertified so that the players could bring an antitrust lawsuit against the owners, and the decision in favor of the players in that case was what brought about the current free-agent system, the ability of the players to bargain collectively, and the landscape for the NFL's current prosperity. The league could very well decertify and bring up the antitrust concept, and that may be its next plan. It worked before, and as a matter of law, it may very well work again.

In the meantime ... enjoy that Super Bowl Sunday, folks. It's looking more and more like it's the last football you're going to see for a while.

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