If there is no NFL lockout in 2011, today’s Supreme Court decision in American Needle v. National Football League will be seen as a key reason why.
In a move that has been dissected by pundits all day long, the U.S. Supreme Court determined the NFL is not a single, large entity. Rather, the league must be recognized as 32 separate teams. The Supreme Court made the ruling with a definitive 9-0 vote.
While in itself the ruling will open the league up to all sorts of lawsuits from companies that want to sell NFL products on a team-by-team basis, the real point of interest is what this means on the labor front.
By not being able to secure anti-trust protection for its brand, the owners have lost a major weapon for collective bargaining discussions with the union. Seeing as NFL owners have generally had the majority of the power when it comes to negotiations with the weak and ineffective football union, this decision may go some ways in humbling them a bit.
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Jim Smith, an antitrust lawyer for Bryan Cave LLP. had this to say regarding the ruling:
"It shifts the dynamics. Now the players union still has that viable option of decertifying, if push comes to shove during labor talks, and they can sue on antitrust grounds."
The move truly does shift the dynamics of negotiations between the two sides. If the NFL had received a favorable anti-trust ruling, the players might have been forced to strike first in response. As a result of 9-0 decision, however, the players are no longer pressed to hastily force a lockout.
To understand why this gives at least a bit of bargaining power back to the union, it is important to understand what American Needle v. National Football League was all about.
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American Needle brought a case against the NFL to question whether the NFL has the right to collectively negotiate with them regarding making hats for the league. American Needle argued that the league was 32 separate teams, and as such, should allow product manufacturers to approach the teams individually. They
argued that the NFL was acting like a monopoly by making production decisions as a single solid entity.
The reason this case ended up being so vital, is because the idea of the league being 32 teams or one single entity wasn’t limited to hat production discussions. Essentially, the NFL was hoping to win the vote, and say that antitrust exemption entitled them to treat the league as a single entity for labor purposes as well.
The NFL’s general counsel, Jeff Pash was reluctant to concede that the league had lost anything today.
"This case was never about collective bargaining, never about labor," Pash said in the lobby of the hotel hosting the meetings.
Still, NFL Players Union (NFLPA) chief DeMaurice Smith recognized the importance of the decision
"The players want to play; the fans want to see us play," Smith said during a telephone interview with ESPN. "We've got upcoming meetings with the league. I look forward to them."
Pash had this to say in response to Smith, "If the decision was 9-0 in our favor, we'd be just as willing to negotiate a fair deal as we are now."
The salary cap system in place now that originated in 1993, was a product of a series of antitrust legal victories at the time. Today’s ruling marked the first time since 1992 that a plaintiff won an antitrust case in the Supreme Court.
Players are already preparing for what the 2011 lockout may hold. Jets tight end Dustin Keller told reporters that he had saved a portion of his paycheck from the prior season. Further, this year he will take a full half of his earnings and put it in the bank in anticipation of a possible lockout.
"I have to," Keller told reporters. "It's not hard, you just have to be disciplined. Hopefully we're not locked out but if we are I think most of us are going be ready."
Apparently, Keller is not alone in his newfound savings approach. The NFLPA has told everyone that they should prepare themselves for the possible fallout from the current collective bargaining agreement expiring next March.
Harold Lewis, the agent representing star players like Jets’ linebacker Bart Scott said that the owners have been acting as a single corporation with a business plan in place all year.
This past March, the NFL abandoned the current collective bargaining agreement. As a result, there was no salary cap for the upcoming season. With no salary cap, players should have been able to get more money from newly signed contracts. Yet for some reason the NFL market has been particularly stagnant during the offseason with no team shelling out any big contracts.
Like Lewis said, the owners are not outbidding each other for top talent. Rather, they are forming a collective front.
"If you're the owners you say, if I sign a bunch of guys for a ton of money, I'm showing my hand and telling the union we're going to play," Lewis told ESPN. "That's what I think is going on behind the scenes. It's not what I think, I know it."
These accusations have not gone unnoticed.
Smith and the rest of the NFLPA have been watching the situation very closely.
"We are taking a very close look at free-agent signings and the amount of money that's being spent and the amount of money that isn't being spent," Smith told reporters.
A lot of insiders with knowledge of the situation have repeatedly said that very little progress will be made until next season winds down and everyone begins to feel the pressure.
Many players believe that there will be some kind of “symbolic work stoppage” in 2011. The hope is that an agreement can be reached shortly after this stoppage, and that players and teams don’t have to suffer from the money that both sides stand to lose in a lockout.
Regardless of what ends up happening in 2011, today will be remembered as the day that the NFL took their first major loss in a long time. The most powerful league, with the most powerful owners, just proved to all parties involved they aren’t bulletproof.