NFL players urged a federal appeals court yesterday to declare the lockout illegal, saying the league had no right to impose a work stoppage that is now approaching 3 months with no sign of a deal that will save the 2011 season.
In a courtroom packed with some 200 people, including out-of-work players and retirees on folding chairs brought in to handle the crowd, attorneys on both sides of the bitter labor fight got roughly 30 minutes each to make their cases.
The appeal centers on the lockout that began hours after months of labor talks fell apart March 11, the players' union dissolved and the fight ended up in federal court. The NFL contends the union decertification was a sham meant to gain leverage in the talks and the conflict remains subject to labor law.
The players argue that antitrust laws apply and the lockout put in place under labor law needs to be put on hold, as it was in April by U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in Minnesota.
"We're asking for a preliminary injunction for a short period of time," the players' counsel, Theodore Olson, said in the hushed courtroom. "We're simply asking that the laws of the U.S. be respected."
The arguments came before a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals whose two earlier 2-1 decisions have sided with the league and upheld the lockout. The panel took the arguments under advisement with one judge, Kermit Bye, saying only that a ruling would come in "due course" and he suggested the two sides figure things out.
"We wouldn't be all that hurt if you go out and settle that case," Bye said with a smile as he closed the 68-minute hearing. "We will keep with our business, and if that ends up with a decision, it's probably something both sides aren't going to like, but at least it will be a decision."
The league is starting to see the effects of the lockout, with furloughs and other recent moneysaving steps. Training camps traditionally start in late July and the first preseason game is little more than 2 months away.
The hearing has been seen as pivotal in the dispute over how to share the NFL's $9 billion in annual revenue, and the turnout included NFL Players Association leader DeMaurice Smith and two dozen players, including Green Bay's Cullen Jenkins, the Jets' Tony Richardson and Giants standout Osi Umenyiora.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spent Friday in Fort Bragg, N.C., a league spokesman tweeting that Goodell isn't a lawyer and "wouldn't have added much to the legal proceedings." Jets owner Woody Johnson was at the hearing.
Ernie Conwell, a former Rams and Saints tight end, said the players were at the negotiating table all those times but "didn't have a willing participant" in the NFL. And he scoffed at a suggestion in court that players are enjoying more family and recreational time with the lockout.
"Come on," said Conwell, now a players' representative. "There is a lot of stress on these guys not knowing what the future holds for them. And the league understands that - that's why the lockout is in place.
"We're not going to own a team for 50 years and pass it on to our kids. Time's on the league's side."
* Minnesota head coach Leslie Frazier says Vikings coaches stand firmly behind their owners in the NFL labor dispute and were not consulted before the NFL Coaches Association filed a brief supporting the players.