The NFL's ability to lock out its players in the long term took a huge hit Tuesday when U.S. District Court Judge David Doty ruled against the league and its owners over their ability to access "lockout funds" from the television networks.
The NFL downplayed Doty's ruling, which will either bar owners from getting advanced payments on the TV deals or award financial damages to the players because the league failed to properly represent the players' interest, but there is little question that the owners are in a much more precarious position.
"The rules just changed," one union source said Tuesday night.
The owners feeling the most heat are the ones who recently built new stadiums with large portions of their own money or through private financing. That list includes the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones, the New England Patriots' Bob Kraft, the New York Jets' Woody Johnson and the New York Giants' John Mara and Steve Tisch.
"The negotiations just got to a more level playing field right now," the source said. "Paying the debt on those stadiums just got a lot harder for those guys."
All of this comes with only two days remaining before the collective bargaining agreement expires. Owners are scheduled to meet Wednesday and Thursday to possibly vote on a lockout or choose another course of action.
On Tuesday, league and NFL Players Association representatives met before a federal mediator again to discuss a potential settlement. Wednesday is the final scheduled day that the two sides will talk before the federal official.
Until now there has been little or no movement on the core issues of the CBA talks. The main point of contention is that the owners want the players to give back approximately $1 billion to cover expenses. The league and the players currently share $9 billion, with the first $1 billion going to owners. Under the owners' proposal, the first $2 billion would go to them and then the sides would split the remainder, 60 percent going to players and 40 to owners.
Doty's decision has little impact on the owners' plans, said league spokesman Greg Aiello.
"As we have frequently said, our clubs are prepared for any contingency, this decision included," Aiello wrote on his Twitter page. "Today's ruling will have no effect on our efforts to negotiate a new, balanced labor agreement."
Another NFL source was not so optimistic.
"This is a dose of reality for some of the hard-line owners who wanted a lockout," the source said. "We can still do it, but it's going to hurt a lot. I think the guys who want peace are going to be speaking up a lot more come Wednesday afternoon."
It's clear from documents submitted in this case that the owners put a high priority on getting deals with the networks that included lockout provisions. Both Jones and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in statements submitted to Doty that the funds were a part of the league's plans in case of a lockout.
Each team would have had access to more than $40 million in advance payments. While the teams would technically have to pay the money back later, having the cash now would allow teams to make loan payments and pay other costs.
The NFLPA argued that the payments violated the CBA because the owners were obligated to negotiate the best deals possible on behalf of the players because the TV revenue is part of the money that is shared.
This news was the first of what the union hopes will be a string of decisions that will change the owners' tone at the bargaining table. For example, the union also plans to decertify on Thursday, a move that could render a possible lockout meaningless and lead the players to a class-action lawsuit.
The leverage in this case could be shifting quickly.
"There's a point where things change," the union source said. "The concern for the players is whether it would happen soon enough to force the owners to change their stance. This is a first step that way."