Off-field moves will decide NFL’s path

Posted Feb. 11, 2011, at 4:42 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 12, 2011, at 2:55 p.m.

Will Green Bay be the Super Bowl champs for two years or longer and only have to play one game to have the honor?

Maybe, if the NFL players and owners continue feuding.

The current agreement ends on March 3. Talks so far have gone nowhere.

Over the next two weeks, there will be much discussion regarding the union’s option of decertification. That is a last-ditch move and will signal a real chance there will be no NFL next fall.

Last September the union began having the players vote, team by team, to allow decertification if union leaders felt it necessary. The leaders have that authority now.

Decertification means the union no longer represents the players and each player becomes a free agent to deal with teams for a contract.

Such action also means the players can challenge the owners under antitrust laws for any actions deemed anti-competitive (like the draft or salary caps), something they generally cannot do when a collective bargaining agreement exists or where there is a union trying to reach an agreement.

The legal history of all this is complicated, but the underlying rationale is understandable.

If the players are represented by a union, the legal system wants to give the sides every opportunity to reach an agreement (or not) with minimal court interference.

If an agreement is reached, there may be parts of the agreement that look to be in violation of antitrust laws, but courts are willing to let the contract stand if the parties agreed to it.

When there is no union, the courts are more likely to carefully watch the actions of the employer, who is considered to have far more leverage over the workers who are acting individually rather than through a union.

If antitrust actions appear to be involved in these dealings, the courts will begrudgingly step in and have done so in past cases where a sports union was decertified and the players alleged antitrust violations.

Employers in these types of cases argue the decertification is a sham and the union is still really involved. NFL owners lost that argument in 1989 when the union decertified.

Complicating the situation is a clause in the current contract that says if the union waits to decertify until after March 3, no antitrust charges can be brought by players for six months or an impasse in negotiations occurs and the owners cannot claim the decertification is a sham.

Would that clause hold up in court in a contract that has expired if players alleged antitrust actions earlier than the agreement allows? Will the players want to decertify before the contract expires to render that clause inoperative?

No good signs are out there that a deal will be reached soon. If you see decertification occur, bone up on your NHL rulebook for next fall.

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