Despite weeks, if not months, of labor negotiations between NFL owners and players, the nation's most popular sport could see its first shutdown in 24 years.
After both parties failed to meet a new labor pact last week, the players' union decertified and the league imposed a lockout. The central issue between the two is how to divide the $9 billion in annual revenue generated by the sport's booming revenues.
The players filed to dissolve their union, allowing them to file antitrust litigation against the owners. Their attorneys are also seeking an injunction from a U.S. District judge in Minneapolis to block the lockout. The first hearing on the injunction is scheduled for April 6.
Ten players, including quarterbacks Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, along with others, filed the antitrust litigation.
A ruling on the injunction could take a month. However, lawyers note it could take years for an antitrust case to go to trial.
Because the NFL Players Association is no longer a union, but rather a trade association, any decision to return to negotiations would be up to the attorneys representing the players. By dissolving and announcing it no longer represents the players in collective bargaining, the union cleared the way for the players to file its class-action lawsuit.
When a labor agreement expires management has the right to issue a lockout, shutting down operations and leaving no communication between teams and current NFL players. In other words no players - including those drafted in April - can be signed and teams won't pay health insurance for players. Players are not allowed in team facilities.
If the lockout lasts, it would lead to the cancellation of games. The last stoppage came in 1987, when the league used replacement players.
An agreement could have been met if the league allowed the players to review the owners full financial disclosure, said the now defunct union.
"We want a fair CBA, that's it," said Vonnie Holliday, the Redskins' player representative, during an ESPN interview. "The owners are saying that they're losing money and they want 18 percent back. Okay, if you are losing money, then in fact show us that. We are not opposed to restructuring, but they refused to do that."
The players' union refused to budge any further without getting detailed financial information for each team.
"I would dare any one of you to pull out any economic indicator that would suggest that the NFL is falling on hard times," said DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL's Players Association to the Associated Press. "The last 14 days, the NFL has said, 'Trust us.' But when it came time for verification, they told us it was none of our business."
The NFL said its offer included splitting the difference in the dispute over how much money owners should be given off the top of the league's revenue. Under the expiring CBA, the owners immediately got about $1 billion before dividing the remainder of revenues with the players; the owners entered negotiations seeking to roughly double that.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. wrote on BlackCommentator.com that the dispute between NFL players and owners is "about raw power, justified to the public, of course, on the basis of alleged fiscal fairness and reality." It's about demolishing the union and stripping workers' basic rights like Republican lawmakers are trying to do in Wisconsin, he said. "The fight of the players is a fight that we should not only concern ourselves with, but a fight which we need to join. If they can destroy the players and their union when the owners are rolling in money, what stops owners in other industries from moving against populations that they believe to be even more vulnerable?"
If a judge sides with the players and agrees to prevent the lockout, the sport would continue operating while the labor dispute is litigated in court. However the judge's decision could be appealed.
Most suspect a settlement will ultimately be reached.
Meanwhile the players union (or trade association, now that it has decertified) is planning on boycotting the NFL draft, which is scheduled at the end of April. The association is asking top college prospects not to attend the highly anticipated ceremony.
Photo: In this 2007 file photo, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, right, and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees after a game in Indianapolis. Brees and Manning and league MVP Tom Brady were among the players who have filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. (Michael Conroy/AP)