The most important court proceedings in the NFL's offseason of litigation came to an end on Friday with Judge Kermit Bye urging the two sides to negotiate on their own and that a decision would come "in due course."
Lawyers representing the players and owners met at the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis Friday morning to present their arguments to the three judges. Around 30 players were also in attendance, as was Jets owner Woody Johnson.
The hearing was regarding the league's appeal of Judge Susan Nelson's April 25 decision to end the lockout. The league was granted a permanent 'stay' of Nelson's ruling, allowing the lockout to continue until the appeal process concludes.
Paul Clement argued for the owners. He questioned the validity of the players' union's decertification and further argued that the court should wait for the pending decision by the National Labor Relations Board on the decertification. Clement also maintained that the Norris-LaGuardia Act keeps the court from ruling on the lockout injunction because this is a labor issue not an antitrust issue.
One of the most striking statements came when Clement said the lockout should be allowed to last at least one year as a tool to get a new deal. The league believes it is allowed to use the lockout to expedite the formation of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Ted Olson argued for the players and said the "union is not in existence anymore," citing the players' decertification in 1993 and that the current decertification was approved by all 32 teams. Olson also referenced Judge David Doty's decision to make $4 billion of TV contract money unavailable to owners during the lockout. Olson also pointed out that the NFL has violated antitrust laws.
In Clement's rebuttal, he mentioned that players appeared to be enjoying the lockout.
Judges Steven Colloton and William Benton, the two who voted for the permanent stay in the court's 2-1 decision on May 16, asked all of the questions during the hearing. Reports indicate most of the questions were directed toward Olson.
Judge Bye, the dissenter in the permanent stay ruling, concluded the hearing by telling both sides that the ruling will come in "due course" and that the decision will be one that "neither side will like." He added, "We won't be hurt if the parties settle."
The league and players met in secret Wednesday and Thursday in a western Chicago suburb. Commissioner Roger Goodell and owners Robert Kraft, Jerry Richardson, Jerry Jones, John Mara and Art Rooney II were there along with NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and five players — Domonique Foxworth, Mike Vrabel, Kevin Mawae, Tony Richardson and Jeff Saturday. Chief Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan brought the two sides together for the mediation talks.
Twitter reports from NFL Network's Albert Breer and Gabe Feldman, National Football Post's Andrew Brandt and Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs were used for this story.
The way we see it
With the hearing concluded, the waiting game is back on. The fact that Judge Bye said the ruling will come in "due course" could provide optimism that a decision will come sooner than later. Judge Nelson took three weeks to make her decision to enjoin the lockout, so late June would appear to be the ballpark of when a ruling could come down.
The sooner the ruling is made, the better. If the owners win and the lockout remains in place, the players, who cannot afford to miss a season, would be forced agree to a new labor agreement with the owners. If the lockout is lifted, the league would have to open its doors and choose the rules to play under, assuming there isn't a new labor agreement agreed to first.
This week's news of the "secret" mediation meetings in Chicago was a positive sign that the two sides appear to be getting serious and keeping lawyers out of negotiations. There is a possibility that a deal could be reached before the court rules, and that would benefit both the league and players, as Judge Bye has suggested that it's possible neither side will like the result.
While the wording in the court's decision to grant the permanent stay would lead one to believe the league is in for another court victory, the players just have to convince one judge to agree with Judge Bye, and anything is possible. Fans should hope, however, that talks continue between the two sides toward agreeing on a new deal outside the courtroom.