Lifting football's labor lockout without a new contract in place would allow better-off teams to sign the best players, tipping the NFL's competitive balance and damaging the league, attorneys for the owners argued in court papers Monday.
The 74-page filing to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis laid out the league's position in advance of a June 3 hearing on its appeal of a key decision by U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson.
Nelson issued an injunction that lifted the lockout on April 25. But the 8th Circuit issued a temporary hold of that order four days later — meaning that players cannot work out, or sign contracts, with any of the 32 clubs.
The arguments in the filing were an expanded version of what the league has claimed all along: that the union's move to decertify after the initial bargaining talks broke down is a sham; that Nelson does not have the jurisdiction to lift the lockout; and, that she should have waited for a decision from the National Labor Relations Board before issuing that ruling.
The league also said that lifting the lockout with no labor deal in place would cause chaos, with teams trying to make decisions on signing free agents and making trades under a set of rules that could change drastically under a new agreement.
"It would be difficult, if not impossible, to unscramble the eggs and return those players to clubs that otherwise may have had contract arrangements with (or, at least, a greater ability to enter into contracts with) such players in the absence of an injunction," the league's court brief said.
The group of players suing the league, including star quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, have said the lockout is inflicting irreparable harm on their brief playing careers by preventing them from working out at team headquarters, holding full practices with teammates and coaches and jeopardizing games. Nelson agreed and issued the injunction.
But the NFL said Monday that the judge "failed entirely to consider the serious, immediate and irreparable harm the injunction posed to the NFL" and "vastly overstated both the harm to the (players) and the nature of that harm."
The owners argued that players do not suffer because the lockout applies equally to everyone.
"Because there are no practices or other organized football activities conducted during a lockout, no player suffers a risk of career-threatening injury or physical wear and tear," attorneys wrote.
The players' response to the league's filing is due May 20, four days after the two sides are scheduled to resume court-ordered mediation in Minneapolis.
The longer the fight over how to divvy up $9 billion in annual revenue drags on, the closer the league and players get to missing games. The first preseason game is just over two and a half months away on Aug. 7, with the regular season opener between the Saints and Packers set for Sept. 8 in Green Bay, Wis.
The league continued to pound away at the players' decision to disband their union, attempting to use some of the players' own quotes in various media outlets over the last few months to prove their point. They cited public comments by Baltimore Ravens receiver Derrick Mason, NFLPA vice president Jeff Saturday, plaintiff Mike Vrabel and others discussing the solidarity the players still feel even though the union has decertified.
A three-judge panel in St. Louis voted 2-1 to issue a temporary stay of Nelson's order on April 29, a decision that still stands. The panel could issue a ruling on a permanent stay pending the appeal any day or, according to court clerk Michael Gans, could let the temporary stay remain in place until the hearing on June 3.
The owners argued in the filing that Nelson's injunction "undercut" their leverage by allowing the players to circumvent the lockout and further delayed constructive bargaining talks, which they deemed "the essence of irreparable harm."
"As to harm to the NFL, federal labor law permits an employer to institute a lockout 'for the sole purpose of bringing economic pressure to bear in support of his legitimate bargaining position,'" the attorneys wrote.
Also on Monday, the NHL filed a brief in support of the NFL. Labor strife caused the hockey league to cancel its 2004-05 season and the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2012.
"While the facts and circumstances may differ as between our league and the NFL, the issues presented on this appeal are of central importance to the NHL and to all participants in collective bargaining relationships in the United States," NHL attorneys wrote.