MINNEAPOLIS – As the labor battle between NFL owners and players moved from the bargaining table to the courtroom, judges at each stop have urged both sides to reach an agreement before they have to issue significant rulings.
The latest nudge in that direction came on Monday from U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who scheduled a hearing on the owners' motion to dismiss an antitrust lawsuit from a group of players for Sept. 12.
Coincidentally or not, Sept. 12 is four days after the regular season is set to open in Green Bay, and one day after the first Sunday of games for the 2011 season.
Shortly after the owners filed their motion to dismiss on Monday, Nelson announced when she would hear arguments on the motion.
The timing is significant, given that the Packers are scheduled to host the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 8, and the NFL has big plans for the first Sunday of action to commemorate the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Both sides hope that hearing never has to happen. The NFL and its players held settlement discussions in Chicago last week, but there is no sign a new collective bargaining agreement is imminent.
Nelson initially ruled in favor of the players in April, requiring the league to lift the lockout and let the players get back to work. That ruling has been appealed to the 8th Circuit in St. Louis, where a three-judge panel heard arguments on Friday and is considering the matter.
The 8th Circuit put Nelson's ruling on hold while it considers the appeal, though it is unclear when they will issue a ruling. In the meantime, the judges urged both sides to get back to the bargaining table and hammer out a deal.
Judge Kermit Bye told attorneys on Friday that if no deal is done before the panel comes to a conclusion, they will likely offer up a decision that will be "probably something both sides aren't going to like."
The owners argue, among other things, that Nelson did not have the jurisdiction to lift the lockout while the National Labor Relations Board is considering an unfair labor charge brought by the league against the players.
The NLRB's regional office in New York forwarded a preliminary report to the national board in Washington, but a spokeswoman said Monday it "doesn't mean a decision is around the corner."
The two sides are engaged in a sometimes bitter dispute over how to divide $9 billion in revenue, a fight that has already caused some minicamps and offseason programs to be lost, free agency and trades to be delayed and resulted in hundreds of employees for teams across the league having their paychecks cut.
The start of training camp is less than two months away, and teams are already making contingency plans if the lockout drags on. The Minnesota Vikings plan to have a date set this week that, if the lockout continued to that point, would force them to cancel training camp in Mankato.
The owners are required to file a full brief supporting their motion by Aug. 1.