NFL's complaint is maneuver vs. decertification

For the NFL fans who didn’t make it through the second year of law school, the story Monday about the league filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over the tactics of the NFL Players Association probably induced a reaction somewhere between confusion and disgust.

The league rattled a saber with the complaint to the NLRB. The filing featured such terms as “disclaimed interest” and “decertification,” and accusations against the union that it used a “ploy and unlawful subversion of the collective bargaining process."

Your head is probably hurting from the legalese, but hang tough for a second. Here’s what it all means: The idea of landing in federal court scares the NFL more than local TV blackouts or even Super Bowl tickets to seats that don’t exist.

On Monday, the NFL fired a torpedo at the union's ability to break up and eventually file a class-action lawsuit. The longer the league can delay the union and the players from getting to court, the more leverage it gains in negotiations with players, hoping to bleed them dry this offseason by making free agency disappear.

For instance, if you want to get New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie(notes) to break from the union, the answer is easy: Tell him he’s going to have to wait five more months to get money. Likewise, tell all the other players who were expecting to be free agents (and who otherwise don’t get paid in the offseason) that they’re going to have to wait until who knows when to get paid.

The NFLPA was planning to decertify as a union before March 3. Players on each team have already approved the action and, technically, it has to be done before March 3 or else the union has to wait six months to file a lawsuit. That’s six months that could end up breaking the union. Furthermore, decertification (which is a fancy word for the NFLPA disbanding as a formal union for the purposes of each player becoming an individual) is an easy way to prevent the owners from enforcing a lockout. Just think about it this way: You can’t lockout an individual who has a contract.

Decertification has bigger long-range impact. As mentioned, it can allow players to file class-action lawsuits, such as the Reggie White case that led to the 1992 settlement between the league and the players. That case created the system that has run the league for the better part of two decades.

Two decades of labor peace.

Of course, the NFL owners don’t like the current state of peace because they believe it has cut into their piece of the financial pie. Never mind that the NFL has seen its income grow from roughly $2 billion in 1993 to $9 billion in 2011. The owners want a bigger percentage.

The best route to reaching that goal is securing as much leverage as possible. Monday's filing was simply about the gamesmanship that goes with any negotiation. It’s similar to when the owners reportedly walked out on the bargaining session last week. It was just posturing.

Anyone who has been keeping track of the round-by-round moves in this fight would say that it seems hypocritical to walk out one week and then claim the next week that the other side doesn’t want to negotiate.

Or as the NFLPA put it in response to the league’s complaint: “The players didn't walk out, and the players can’t lockout. Players want a fair, new and long-term deal. We have offered proposals and solutions on every issue the owners have raised. This claim has absolutely no merit.”

If the owners are successful, they will get a huge chunk of leverage, the kind that will either force a deal right away or pave the road to a long and infuriating lockout.

In other words, just as much as the league fears decertification, the players fear a lockout.