Hope still alive in NFL thanks to Doty

A Mameluke sword – the imposing, impressive curved weapon carried by Marine officers since 1825 – hangs on the wall of the downtown Minneapolis chambers of U.S. District Judge David S. Doty. Forget balanced weights, the traditional symbol of justice. Doty prefers something that might still behead someone.

This week the old Marine did just that, chopping away at the previously unbendable will of NFL owners, who were hell-bent on locking its players out and potentially threatening the 2011 season when the clock struck midnight Thursday.

Instead, the league and the NFL Players Association agreed to a 24-hour extension to the collective bargaining agreement and will continue mediation Friday in Washington. It was a move that many believe will result in another longer extension and, perhaps, even labor peace in the near future.

If nothing else, there is still hope.

That was an emotion on short supply until Judge Doty ruled in favor of the players Tuesday in a sharply worded decision that not only denied NFL owners immediate access to $4 billion in television revenue, but laid bare the owners' lack of good faith negotiations and obvious intent to cause a work stoppage.

Since then, the entire trajectory of these negotiations has changed.

"We're going to keep working," union leader DeMaurice Smith said Thursday. "We want to play football."

Doty was a Marine from 1952-58. At the age of 28, he oversaw an atomic weapons depot in Okinawa. He's 81 now, so this radioactive labor dispute is nothing.

According to an associate, whatever physical strength time has taken from him, his determination, will and backbone remain as staunch as ever. "He's a tough man," said one person at the courthouse who requested anonymity. Both Doty and members of his staff declined interview requests.

NFL owners are rich, connected and powerful. They are titans of industry who expect everyone and everything to bend to their will – from business partners to taxpayers.

It was never more obvious than in their preparations for this lockout, which left one bulldozed broadcast network executive to lament, according to Doty's ruling, "[The NFL has] market power like no one else."

In the face of that power Doty never blinked. He's been a thorn in the NFL's side for decades (he made a key ruling in 1992 that helped pave the way for free agency). All these days later, nothing's changed. He didn't hesitate to lay out the league's motives in clear, understandable terms.

The issue was the NFL's actions in the run-up to the end of the CBA. Doty exposed how the league abandoned its fiduciary responsibilities by giving away potential revenue streams in exchange for broadcast networks agreeing to a collective $4 billion in money even if there was no 2011 season.

The pay-for-no-play deal was the owners' strongest weapon, allowing those with considerable debt service on stadiums to breeze along even in the absence of a season. It was also unfair to the players, who count on the league to engage in good faith business practices to maximize revenue.

Instead the league gave, for instance, NBC, an extra regular-season game for the entirety of its contract (no small thing there) in exchange for guaranteed money in lieu of a lockout. It also offered that if an entire season is cancelled, the network's deal would be automatically extended one year (a Super Bowl included). Given the upward trend in rights fees, giving away a future season on current terms is considerable.

Fox and CBS, meanwhile "gained highlight rights, streaming rights and advertising flexibility for the 2009-2010 seasons" among other things, according to Doty's ruling.

As the union successfully argued, this showed the NFL was more concerned on preparing a war chest for a lockout than doing what was best for the league's financial health.

After all, when in the name of Jerry Jones' $25 hamburgers and "temporary" Super Bowl seats have you ever heard of the NFL not trying to squeeze every last penny out of someone?

"Broadcast contracts are an enormous source of shared revenue for the Players and the NFL," Doty's ruling reads. "Under the [Stipulation and Settlement Agreement], the Players rely on the NFL to negotiate these contracts on behalf of both the NFL's own interests and the interests of the Players … the NFL sought to renegotiate broadcast contracts to ensure revenue for itself in the event of a lockout."

And with that, everything changed. Perhaps enough to save the season.

Robert Kraft (left), with Jerry Jones on Wednesday, crafted the NFL's TV deals.
(Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

The league tried to put on a brave face, yet did itself no favors. It argued not having immediate access to the $4 billion hardly mattered.

"As we have frequently said, our clubs are prepared for any contingency, this decision included," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement. "[Tuesday's] ruling will have no effect on our efforts to negotiate a new, balanced labor agreement."

So the NFL has so much money that the "loss" of $4 billion a year is of no concern? And yet its arguing it needs more of the game's revenue?

"This ruling means there is irrefutable evidence that owners had a premeditated plan to lock out players and fans for more than two years," George Atallah, of the NFLPA, said.

The owners may have been planning it, but after being rocked by the ruling, they stared at the actual deadline Thursday then backed off and decided they needed more time.

If you want to know how bizarre this labor fight is, the strongest card the players have is to decertify its union. It's a move that would allow players to sue the league on anti-trust grounds (lead plaintiffs: Peyton Manning(notes), Tom Brady(notes) and Drew Brees(notes).) That could leave the league open to questions about player contracts, the salary cap, the franchise tag and restricted free agency as well as triple damages.

NFL owners are now the rare management group that actually wants a union. Auto executives, factory owners and the governor of Wisconsin can only shake their heads.

A work stoppage may still be coming, maybe as early as Friday night. Even another extension doesn't assure a deal will soon be done or the 2011 season will go on without delay. Only time will tell.

What's clear as we move into overtime though is this: the owners were barreling along full of confidence and expected cash until an old, tough Minnesota Marine stopped them in their tracks.

Never challenge a guy with a sword.