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Game-changing day looms for NFL, union

Posted by Greg A. Bedard  March 3, 2011 12:01 AM

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CHANTILLY, Va. – At some point later today, the National Football League as we know it will be in uncharted territory.

Barring an extension of Friday’s deadline to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFL Players’ Association, the NFL will be out of business.

It certainly has that feel. When the NFL owners and their executive committee ended meetings tonight, they went their separate ways except for key negotiators. Even most league personnel headed back to New York. If you were about to embark on a new deal, you’d expect more than a few to stick around and be patted on the back.

As one league source told me today, the league and the players’ union hasn’t made much progress – if any – on the key components of a new deal, especially the split of revenue.

“There’s a long ways to go,” the source said.

After the NFL was summoned to speak with federal mediator George Cohen last night ex parte from the union – Cohen is probably trying to get a gauge on this with some frank discussions -- mediation will begin at 9 a.m. between the two sides.

Then things will really get interesting.

Here’s an outline on how things should play out:

  • The two sides with break off talks at some time around Noon, after which Cohen will likely release some sort of statement about what, if any progress, mediation brought about among the two sides;
  • Both the union and league will retreat to the respective corners, including Commissioner Roger Goodell back to New York;
  • The NFLPA will announce it’s intention to decertify as a union, which it must do now or wait six months (and to also keep Judge David Doty, who has usually ruled pro-players since the early 1990s on the case). NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith will issue a statement and/or hold a press conference to explain that the league left the players no choice.
  • The owners will issue a statement – not a press conference – that, in the nicest possible terms, says that since there is not a new CBA, the league can’t operate.
  • Then the legal battle begins. These could come in any order: the NFL filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming the decertification is a sham (they tried the same argument in 1989 when the NFLPA decertified and it didn’t work), the NFL petitioning for Doty to excuse himself from the case, and the NFLPA to file an anti-trust lawsuit against the league claiming things such as restricted free agency, franchise tags and the salary cap violates the players’ rights and an injunction aimed at stopping a lockout;
  • The anti-trust suit would take months, if not years, to come to a conclusion. The players’ best hope at forcing the NFL back to business is through the injunction. And that will be a difficult – but not impossible – case to be won because the players will have to prove that a drastic measure by the courts is needed. The courts don’t like to butt in during labor disputes. They want them to figure it out on their own.
  • If there is no injunction, the best hope for a meaningful offseason or even a full training camp and games is that the NFL teams, many riddled by debt caused by stadiums and perhaps other things (Patriot Place, for example) simply can’t sustain a lockout very long after Doty ruled Tuesday night that the NFL isn’t entitled to its $4.2 billion lockout war chest from the television contracts.
  • It’s basically a staring contest from then on out. Who will give in first, the players or owners? Now that the TV money is dried up, will the two sides both feel the pinch earlier than expected and come together to forge a new CBA?

No one knows. Like we said, Thursday will likely bring uncharted territory to the NFL.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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