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Analysis: Judge Nelson’s decision sends NFL into a strange new world

04.25.11 at 10:42 pm ET
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Monday’s ruling from Judge Susan Richard Nelson that lifts the lockout now casts the NFL into a strange new world, according to sports legal expert Michael McCann.

With uncertainty about the future of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, there are several unanswered questions about the immediate future of the game, including what might happen if players are to show up at the facilities to work out and/or collect offseason workout bonuses on Tuesday morning.

“Technically, the players can go back to work,” said McCann, a sports law professor who has written about the lockout extensively for SI.com. “The question, really, is under what economic system? It’s an unusual circumstance, and her ruling doesn’t really indicate whether or not the terms of the prior CBA would remain in effect.

“But technically, the lockout has been lifted.”

In the 89-page ruling, Nelson wrote that the plaintiffs “have made a strong showing that allowing the League to continue their ‘lockout’ is presently inflicting, and will continue to inflict, irreparable harm upon them, particularly when weighed against the lack of any real injury that would be imposed on the NFL by issuing the preliminary injunction.

“(T)he public ramifications of this dispute exceed the abstract principles of the antitrust laws, as professional football involves many layers of tangible economic impact, ranging from broadcast revenues down to concessions sales,” Nelson wrote. “And, of course, the public interest represented by the fans of professional football — who have a strong investment in the 2011 season — is an intangible interest that weighs against the lockout. In short, this particular employment dispute is far from a purely private argument over compensation.”

McCann, the director of the Sports Law Institute at the Vermont Law School and the distinguished visiting Hall of Fame Professor of Law at Mississippi College School of Law, said the ruling was actually a bit of a surprise.

“I think it’s a surprise in the sense that most courts are usually reluctant to grant injunctions,” he said. “She had to do a lot, like find irreparable harm. That meant the players went into this unlikely to prevail, so it is a surprise. And her opinion is very much in favor of the players. It’s a slam-dunk for the players.”

Initially, it was believed that the owners had scored a minor victory by avoiding the courtroom of Judge David Doty, who had previously ruled in favor of the players on several occasions, including a March case where he ruled that the owners had violated the CBA by striking deals with television networks that require ongoing payments to the league during a work stoppage.

“It looks like any relief the owners had about this case not going before Judge Doty ended at about 4 p.m. on Monday afternoon,” McCann said.

As for the next step, the owners have already filed a “stay,” which will continue the legal process at the appellate level. That will likely send the case to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. While some believe that a ruling could come as soon as Tuesday, McCann cautioned that the courts work on their own schedule.

“Courts normally don’t act that quickly when someone’s life isn’t on the line,” he said. “For sports fans this is an emergency, and there are many livelihoods at stake, but the Eighth Circuit Court may not react as promptly as the NFL wants. It’s possible that they could react quickly — there is a lot of money on the line here — but at the same time, this isn’t a criminal case.”

As for how the Eighth Circuit Court might rule, McCann said it’s unclear which way they might lean.

“I think it’s unclear what will happen,” he said. “The Eighth Circuit doesn’t have a reputation for being particularly ideological. I think the owners would feel better if this was in the Seventh Circuit Court in Chicago, but the Eighth doesn’t have that reputation. It’s not particularly liberal or conservative. There’s no clear sense of what they’re going to do, at least not when it comes to this case.”

To read more from McCann on the lockout, check out his SI.com archive here. And follow him on Twitter for updates here.

Read More: David Doty, lockout, Michael McCann, Susan Richard Nelson
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