Federal Judge Susan Nelson ordered the NFL owners and players back to the mediation table beginning Thursday, while leaving open the possibility of granting the players an injunction to end the current lockout which reached its 31st day on Monday.
The owners and players spent 16 days with Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service director George Cohen earlier last month which ended unsuccessfully on March 11 with the players decertifying their union and filing the current class-action antitrust lawsuit, headed by Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning. Each side openly stated that they were open to mediation, but disagreed on the venue. The players favored the mediation take place under the supervision of the federal courts in Minnesota. The owners preferred to continue talks with the FMCS and Cohen in Washington, DC.
On Monday, Judge Nelson dealt another blow to the NFL owners from the federal courts, ordering that formal mediation will begin Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Authur Boylan at his office in downtown Minneapolis. ESPN reports that Boylan met with the player representatives on Tuesday and the NFL on Wednesday. Judge Boylan met with the players’ class to become more knowledgeable of their positions before doing the same with the NFL’s lawyers. Former NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith was added as an attorney for the players, which will allow him to sit in on any mediation sessions. Judge Nelson has ordered that the both sides keep the mediation talks confidential or face being held in contempt or face sanctions.
Last week’s hearing ended with Judge Nelson urging both sides to get back to mediation and come to an agreement. The players wanted assurances that any new talks would not be construed as them acting as a union, which would bolster the NFL’s NLRB argument that the decertification was a sham. The NFL and its owners have not had much success before the federal courts, ranging back to Judge David Doty’s many rulings against them (ranging from the recent TV deal case to the Freeman McNeil/Reggie White case of 1987). The NFL was hoping to continue mediation with FMCS to keep the hopeful settlement from under the court’s supervision. However, Judge Nelson foiled those plans. She has said she plans to make a ruling in the next couple of weeks.
While there is cause for optimism that the two sides are finally “talking” again, most experts don’t see a happy ending via mediation. I find it highly doubtful that the owners and players will come to an agreement before Judge Nelson ultimately makes a decision on whether or not to grant an injunction ending the lockout. No matter which side “wins,” an appeal will happen, stretching the court case well into the summer. The NFL owners also have a pending case against the NFLPA before the National Labor Relations Board which will take some time to be heard and settled. This is a terrible outcome for NFL fans, as no rookies will be signed after the upcoming NFL Draft at the end of the month, off-season workouts will not resume, and no free agents will be signed.
In other league news, the NFL released a 2011 preseason football schedule today despite the owners currently locking the players out. They must know something we don’t know. Stay tuned.