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NFL Lockout: 8th Circuit overrules lower court, lockout is affirmed

The Lower 8th has ruled on the NFL lockout, and has overruled the lower court to block the injunction against the lockout by the NFL, as per Daniel Kaplan. This isn't a huge surprise as their temporary stay ruling already contained strong language in this direction. Reading the ruling, the 8th again affirms that Norris-LaGuardia does apply and dismissed the NFLPA's arguments concerning it. The ruling changes nothing immediately as the lockout has been on anyway, and by this point is best resolved by negotiation rather than court ruling.

That said, word is flying around about interesting bits of this ruling. Albert Breer lets us know that the ruling states that "we express no view on whether the League’s nonstatutory labor exemption from the antitrust laws continues after the union’s disclaimer", which affirms the NFLPA's leverage in the form of a possible antitrust suit. In additional, Doug Farrar states that players not under contract (rookies and free agents) are not subject to this ruling. This does not mean free agency is on or that rookies can be signed, that would require the court forcing the start of a league year, but it might mean rookies can receive playbooks and have contact with coaches, depending on the language of the ruling (addendum: it doesn't).

The timing of this ruling is unfortunate, but basically follows the expected schedule, so don't buy into the huge shock brouhaha. It doesn't appear to grant a huge amount of leverage either way. The owners can now continue the lockout at their behest, but the players have specifically been affirmed in their right to file an antitrust case if necessary. It is more or less as expected though certainly more positive for owners than for players. Hopefully, it will not impact the ongoing negotiations in any negative sense. Albert Breer speculates that this will ramp up urgency in the ongoing negotiations, and succinctly summarizes the impact of this ruling here.

You can find the ruling here, including the comments by the dissenting Judge Bye. Here is the most immediately interesting bit, on rookies and free agents:

Another portion of the injunction is not foreclosed by § 4(a).  The district court enjoined not only the League’s lockout of employees, i.e., players under contract, but also the League’s refusal to deal with non-employees, i.e., free agents and prospective players or “rookies.”  As to these latter groups of players, § 4(a) does not apply.  The refusal of the League and NFL clubs to deal with free agents and rookies is not a refusal “to remain in any relation of employment,” for there is no existing employment relationship in which “to remain.”

An injunction with respect to the League’s actions toward free agents and rookies, however, cannot be issued except in strict conformity with § 7 of the NLGA, 29 U.S.C. § 107, because this is “a case involving or growing out of a labor dispute.” Id. §§ 101, 107.  The present injunction does not conform to § 7

That is certainly very interesting, but note that the 8th Circuit basically states no ruling has been made on this because Judge Nelson's ruling enjoined the lockout as a whole, including free agents and rookies. No specific ruling on players not under contract was necessary at the time.

However, they state that this part of the injunction "cannot be issued except in strict conformity (...) with the NLGA" and that the "present injunction does not conform to §7". That means the lockout for players not under contract is also on, but simply by the fact that the injunction granted does not specifically treat that part of the lockout. The NFLPA or Judge Nelson could take that opportunity to kick this part of the case back to the lower court to have her rule on the lockout of players not under contract. That would most likely break up the negotiations and take it back to courts for weeks, just for the start of free agency (not for the start of a full league year). For obvious reasons, this is undesirable for all parties involved.

Addendum: the NFL and NFLPA have issued a joint statement:

While we respect the court's decision, today's ruling does not change our mutual recognition that this matter must be resolved through negotiation. 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.