|NFL players' labor leader DeMaurice Smith|
NEW ORLEANS â€“ If I were a member of the "unofficial" National Football League Players Association, I'd be nervous.
Sure, there's still lots of time for the players and owners to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement before any regular-season games would be jeopardized, but the players find themselves locked in (ironically) to a risky position.
The players chose to litigate rather than negotiate. It looked like a good idea initially when a district judge in Minneapolis ruled in their favor and lifted the lockout on March 11. It still could prove to be a good idea and a winning strategy if the 8th Circuit in St. Louis denies the owners' appeal, likely next month.
But if that three-judge panel in the 8th Circuit rules in the owners favor, which it already has done twice by granting and extending a stay to keep the lockout in place, the NFLPA will have to call a big-time audible.
The players' decision to litigate essentially forced negotiations into a three-month bye. Yeah, court-ordered mediation resumed this week. Both sides offered lip service about alleged progress, but neither the players nor the owners figure to budge much until a ruling comes down on the appeal. Why would either side offer any meaningful concessions before finding out if it has a legal victory that would give it the upper hand in negotiations?
So don't expect any significant progress in negotiations or mediation until we have a decision on the owners' appeal. A hearing is set for June 3; a ruling will come at some undetermined time after that.
By my rough calculations, with the ability to slightly compress training camp and the preseason and three weeks of cushion in the regular season â€“ a bye week for each team, the week off before the Super Bowl, and the ability to push the Super Bowl back one week â€“ an agreement could come as late as Labor Day-ish before regular-season games are lost.
Nonetheless, with serious negotiations or mediation unlikely to begin until June or July, the pressure will be palpable once a ruling on the owners' appeal is handed down.
If the players win, then the owners will have to open their facilities while the triumphant players will be able to prepare for the season in earnest almost immediately. Great.
But if the owners prevail â€“ and they would be the morning-line favorites â€“ then the pressure will be squarely on the players, who are far more vulnerable than the owners are to lost regular-season games and wages.
Many players are diligently preparing their bodies in case the court allows them to return to the office sometime in the not-too-distant future. But the players had better be at least as well prepared for the other potential outcome.
That means knowing exactly where they are prepared to make concessions on key issues, and how to prepare for the PR nightmare of having squandered more than half of the prime negotiating time to pursue a failed litigation game plan.
Good luck, guys.
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