Once upon a time, a June 3 hearing in a St. Louis courtroom was supposed to determine what happens with the NFL lockout, but not anymore. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday all but guaranteed it will favor the league when it hears from the two sides next month.
Meaning? Meaning the NFL just pulled a rabbit out of its hat. I know, a decision won't be forthcoming until mid-to-late June, but the drama that was supposed to exist then won't -- not after what the court just did. And what it did was not only grant the league its motion to continue a two-month lockout; it delivered the NFL a triumph so decisive it could force players into retreat.
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Until now, they believed -- and with good reason -- that their best interests rested with the courts, and until now they had the record to prove it. But Monday's ruling wasn't just a defeat for players; it was Gettysburg, with the 8th Circuit turning back players by telling us that it doesn't buy the argument that they're suffering "irreparable harm."
So what? So it means the players' cause just went into reverse. The appellate court almost surely will overrule Judge Susan Nelson's injunction, keeping the lockout in place, preventing players from collecting checks and giving the NFL the momentum it lacked until now.
What that means in the short run is that nothing changes as far as the league is concerned. The lockout that is there this month will be there next month. What it means from a larger perspective is more intriguing, with players forced to re-evaluate a strategy that, until now, worked and worked effectively.
For weeks, NFL lawyers argued that the dispute with players was a labor issue, not an antitrust case, and that it should be treated as one. But Judge Nelson disagreed, causing some observers to infer that the NFL was fighting a losing battle and calling on it to surrender.
But listen to what the appellate court said Monday, and tell me who's backpedaling now.
"We have serious doubts that the district court had jurisdiction to enjoin the League's lockout," it said, "and accordingly conclude that the League has made a strong showing that it is unlikely to succeed on the merits."
In essence, the appellate court said it believes Judge Nelson misinterpreted the law. Moreover, it tipped its hand for next month -- with two of the three judges squarely in the NFL's corner. If they buy the idea that this is a labor dispute, and it sure seemed that way, then what happens when they tackle the issue of a labor exemption? All I know is if the judges tilt as they did Monday the players' claims for damages may be dead on arrival, too.
"The NFL's request for a stay that was granted means no football," the players said in a statement. "The players are in mediation and are trying to save the 2011 season."
Good luck with that one, too. We've already seen where mediation is taking this season, which is why we have a lockout. And despite a report that Monday's latest session produced substantial progress, people who should know tell me there was nothing of the sort and that talks went as previous mediation talks have -- which was nowhere. All I know is that there have been a lot of sessions, with the only movement provoked by the courts.
We will wait until next month to hear from the courts again, but I think we know what happens -- and then it will be up to the players to respond.
All I know is that Monday's decision is a welcome victory for a league that desperately needed one and a potentially crippling blow to its players. As you might expect, the NFL followed the decision by calling on players to negotiate, not litigate, and this time I suggest they listen because this time it's the NFL, not the players, who hold the leverage.
Only this time, it looks like more than just leverage. It looks like game, set and match.