Appeals court backs lockout, tosses judge’s ruling

Posted July 08, 2011, at 5:56 p.m.
Last modified July 08, 2011, at 6:48 p.m.

NEW YORK — The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday threw out a judge’s order lifting the NFL lockout, handing the league a victory as players and owners returned to negotiations.

The ruling was issued shortly after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith opened a second straight day of labor talks at a law firm in Manhattan.

The court vacated an April 25 decision by U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson that the lockout should be lifted because players were suffering irreparable harm. The appeals court had already put that order on hold and said in its ruling that Nelson ignored federal law in reaching her decision.

“While we respect the court’s decision, today’s ruling does not change our mutual recognition that this matter must be resolved through negotiation,” the league and NFLPA said in a joint statement. “We are committed to our current discussions and reaching a fair agreement that will benefit all parties for years to come, and allow for a full 2011 season.”

During negotiations Friday the rookie wage scale and finalizing the free agency rules were discussed, according to a person familiar with the talks who requested anonymity because details are not being announced publicly. Owners want to increase the number of unrestricted free agents on which they can exercise the right of first refusal.

The appeals court ruling allows the players’ antitrust lawsuit to move forward, but the court did take issue with the NFL Players Association’s decision to decertify on March 11, a move that cleared the way for players to file their still-pending antitrust lawsuit against the league.

“The league and the players’ union were parties to a collective bargaining agreement for almost eighteen years prior to March 2011,” the appeals court said in its 2-1 decision. “They were engaged in collective bargaining over terms and conditions of employment for approximately two years … Then, on a single day, just hours before the CBA’s expiration, the union discontinued collecti ve bargaining and disclaimed its status ….”

“Whatever the effect of the union’s disclaimer on the league’s immunity from antitrust liability, the labor dispute did not suddenly disappear just because the players elected to pursue the dispute through antitrust litigation rather than collective bargaining.”

Judges Steven Colloton and Duane Benton backed the league Friday, just as the two Republican appointees did in two earlier decisions. Judge Kermit Bye, appointed by a Democrat, dissented both times, favoring the players, and he did so again Friday.

Bye had urged settlement of the dispute to avoid a ruling “both sides aren’t going to like.”

The two sides have been meeting for weeks to try to reach a new labor pact. On Friday, NFLPA executive board President Kevin Mawae and owners John Mara of the New York Giants and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys joined Goodell and Smith for more negotiations.

On Thursday, talks stretched on for more than 12 hours, deep into the evening. Some training camps are set to open in two weeks and the first exhibition game, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions, is Aug. 7 in Canton, Ohio, between Chicago and St. Louis.

Meanwhile, the lockout has forced people from all corners of pro football into awkward, anxious situations this summer, with sports bar owners, season-ticket holders and team staff awaiting word of an agreement.

Undrafted free agents such as former Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber are among the most affected.

After an up-and-down four years starting every game of his college career for the Gophers, Weber has been busy keeping his mind, arm and body in shape for the chance to land a spot on an NFL roster this fall, assuming the lockout ends in time to keep the regular season intact.

During a normal year, Weber would at least have a team — and a playbook — by now.

“All the free agents are in a gigantic pool. It’s going to be interesting to see where teams go, especially if the lockout doesn’t get settled this week or next week,” Weber said Thursday after a workout at his alma mater. “The closer you get to the season, I think, the less chance they’re going to take on an unproven rookie free agent quarterback. We’ll see. People ask me where I wan t to go. I do not care. Any city, any place. I do not care. I just want an opportunity.”

Weber added: “Being a free agent, I’m not going to get many reps. Those are going to go to the guys that got drafted. I know that. I know it’s going to be a struggle. But I’m trying to work as hard as I can so that when I do get an opportunity I can go out there and execute a play and give the coaches a reason to keep me on the team.”

Drafted rookies, even in the late rounds, have the benefit of signing bonuses and stature. Plus, many of them were able to meet with their coaches and pick up a playbook in April while the lockout was temporarily lifted by a court order.

Not only will undrafted players like Weber have less time to prove their worth, they’ll have less time to absorb a team’s scheme and grasp the terminology.

“It’s going to be really hard for everybody in Adam’s situation,” said Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Matt Spaeth, a friend of Weber’s and a fellow former Gophers player. “They would’ve been practicing. They would’ve been meeting with coaches. They would’ve been figuring stuff out. The coaches would’ve been getting to know them and what they can do. With this lockout they’re going to g et an opportunity, but they’re not going to get much of an opportunity. It’s going to be training camp, and everything’s going to be thrown at them. It’s not an easy thing. You don’t just pick it u p and learn the offense and feel comfortable.”

Weber has been learning as much as he can from pros such as Spaeth and Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, a Minneapolis native who has been organizing offseason workouts in his hometown for the past few years.

“I believe he’s got a lot of ability. I just hope that the lockout ends so he can find himself a good home, get acclimated to the offense and get the ball rolling,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a good kid, and I really want to see him do well.”

Weber does have the ability to adapt. In five seasons with the Gophers, including his redshirt year, coaching changes forced him to learn four different offensive systems.

“Regardless of how many times I’ve had to do it in college, I think doing it at the next level is going to be difficult,” Weber said.

So he’s trying to stay as ready as possible, poised to soon hustle off to some new place if a new collective bargaining agreement is reached and a team offers him a contract. Though he’s enjoyed some down time, taking week-long vacations have been out of the question due to the uncertainty of the start of the new league year.

“For the past probably month and a half, I’ve heard it’s about a week away. So with that mindset, it’s been tough,” Weber said. “I know I’ve had some nice time off, but I’ve also had time to get in shape. I feel like I’m ready to go, and I’m ready at a moment’s notice.”

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