The 8th Circuit Court, in a somewhat surprising move, issued a ruling on the lockout this morning.
The surprise was not that the court ruled in favor of the NFL, which it did in declaring the lockout legal, but in the timing of the ruling. When both sides appeared in front of the court to make their oral arguments, the parting words from Judge Kermit Bye encouraged them to come to a resolution themselves as the eventual ruling would be one "neither side would like."
It would seem Bye was not kidding around.
While the ruling gives the league some additional leverage in their negotiations with the players by declaring the lockout legal and giving no opinion on when it should end, it also allows the players anti-trust suit to carry on, meaning the NFL is still exposed to the possibility of being hit with a monstrous verdict in the form of $12 billion or even more if the lockout is later found to be illegal.
One other nugget that comes in the ruling - rookies and free agents, as they do not have binding contracts with teams or the league, can not be locked out. The ruling stipulates that the lower court must have a hearing on the matter, so while no signings can be made at this time, teams are more or less free to contact these players. (Though one would assume owners will tell GMs and coaches to sit tight, I've got to think some enterprising teams will have been working the phones all day)
Shortly after the ruling was announced, both sides broke from mediation in Manhattan to asses what it meant to them. After a short respite, the NFL and the former players union issued this joint statement:
While we respect the court’s decision, today’s ruling does not change our mutual recognition that this matter must be resolved through negotiation. We are committed to our current discussions and reaching a fair agreement that will benefit all parties for years to come, and allow for a full 2011 season.
The "full 2011 season" is, of course, music to fans ears.
Both sides realize the clock is ticking on many fronts. On the legal side, Judge David Doty has yet to award damages to the players after his March ruling that owners negotiated the last round of league TV contracts in bad faith. On the revenue side, the "pie" that both sides are trying to cut up will only grow smaller, by about $200 million a week, if preseason games start being missed.
All in all, things are still on target for a deal to be in place by July 15th, which has been a target date circled by the league when a deal would need to get done by for training camps to open on time.
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