Decertification should only delay free agency

WASHINGTON – For those of you not well-versed in labor law, here is a short interpretation of what the failure of the NFL and its players to strike a new CBA on Friday means.

Free agency probably will start in two to four weeks. Or even less.

But the 2011 season is much more up for grabs.

For those of you confused by the failure of collective bargaining, by the meaning of decertification or, better yet, the phrase "disclaimer of interest," the bottom line is that the NFL offseason – including the NFL draft – will progress pretty much as normal after a short break.

That's the sum and total of the actions by the NFL Players Association, when it chose to decertify as a union Friday after negotiations with the league broke down. While that may seem strange to most fans given the angry tenor of the rhetoric, it's the easiest way to summarize the impact. However, there are a number of legal actions that will take place later on that could get in the way of the season.

For now, however, the 2011 offseason is expected to start after what is expected to be a brief lockout of the players by the owners. Jeff Kessler, an outside attorney for the NFLPA who has worked with the league for approximately 25 years, said he expects the league to lock out the players rather than face the start of free agency at midnight Saturday.

The union will counter the lockout with the antitrust class-action lawsuit it filed in conjunction with decertifying. In that lawsuit, the union is arguing for an injunction of a possible lockout and any other restrictions the league might put on free agency going forward. The case has been assigned to U.S. District judge Patrick Schiltz instead of his colleague David Doty, who has long overseen NFL labor matters.

In short, the players believe they are in a good position to get a favorable ruling and an injunction against a lockout. Once the owners are unable to lock out the players, it would be up to the owners to put in place a series of rules regarding free agency. That system is expected to be similar to what the NFL has done with free agency since 1993, such as players being free agents after four, five or six years. That means that veteran players such Nnamdi Asomugha(notes), Braylon Edwards(notes) and perhaps Santonio Holmes(notes) will be eligible for free agency the same way as if a new CBA deal had been struck. The legal fight will continue, but it would be unlikely to stop the start of free agency.

In other words, you can eventually breathe easy.

At least in the short-term.

The long-term issues revolving around the court fight between the league and the players gets much more complicated after that. Assuming there is an injunction of a lockout, the union would appeal that injunction to the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, a three-member panel of judges who would hear the case. If the NFL wins at that level, it would then have the right to lock out the players later on, such as during the season.

Then again, figuring out anything in this morass of legal maneuvers is going to be difficult for fans. That is why the failure of the league and the players to reach an agreement was so frustrating for all involved and why so many people apologized for where it leaves the league.

"To the fans, we are sorry it came to this [Friday]," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said after the union walked away when the league declined to provide it with all the financial information it wanted. "You deserve better. I am truly sorry. The players are sorry. Our players – your players – left everything they had at the table."

Smith then talked in detail about the broken trust between the sides. As he has cited many times, Smith talked about how the NFLPA had hoped to work out a new deal for the past two years, only to find out that the owners were secretly working on a plan for "lockout insurance" funds from the television networks. That breach of trust, in the union's eyes, forced it to ask for the financial disclosure.

In the same vein, New York Giants owner John Mara apologized to the fans and then indicated that the players weren't willing to budge.

"This obviously is a very disappointing day for all of us," Mara said. "I've been here for the better part of two weeks now, and essentially during that two-week period the union's position on the core economic issues has not changed one iota. Their position has quite literally been 'take it or leave it' and in effect they have been at the same position since last September. We made an offer to them [Friday] to basically split the difference between the two sides. We made that approximately at 12 p.m. and at 4 p.m. they came back and said it was insufficient."

John Mara
(Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

Mara's reference to the league's last offer will be hotly debated by the two sides over the coming weeks. In essence, by the end of the mediation session, the parties appear to have been approximately $223 million apart annually. According to Smith, the union was willing to give the owners approximately $137.5 million back for a total of $550 million over the next four years.

The owners countered with an offer that would have taken approximately $360 million from the players and given it to the owners annually for a total of $1.44 billion over the next four years. In addition, the owners backed off their desire for an 18-game schedule for at least the next two seasons and only would have increased the schedule with the agreement of the players.

Thus, the question among the players will be whether all the legal wrangling and risk they just took with their decision to walk away from the negotiations will be worth it, particularly if the NFL wins a decision or two in the courts.

Or, as one NFL team executive said after watching the actions unfold and taking a quick glance at the numbers: "You'd think when things are this close that you could have kept going and found a solution somewhere along the way. It just doesn't seem that hard."

Then again, perhaps a solution can be found at some point, if you listen to Kessler.

"As attorneys, we're always looking to settle," he said, smiling like a guy who held all the cards.

At least for now.