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3Qs: NFL season likely—after a season of litigation

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National Football League owners and players failed to reach a new labor deal earlier this month, with both sides at odds over divvying up the league’s $9 billion in revenue. As a result, the NFL lockout is on, and now the matter is headed to court. Roger Abrams, the Richardson Professor of Law at Northeastern’s School of Law — who has taught sports law for 25 years — assesses the legal process ahead and weighs in on the prospects for saving the 2011 NFL season.

What’s the next step in the legal process?

The NFL players’ union has decertified, and the players are seeking an injunction in federal court against the owners. (A hearing has been set for April 6.) They’re saying that, without a union, the owners can’t collectively decide to boycott a group of employees. That’s what a lockout is in anti-trust terms: a boycott. It could be weeks until the owners learn whether their lockout will stand. If it stands, they may wait to see how long their employees can withstand the lockout. If it doesn’t stand and is enjoined as a violation of anti-trust laws — which in my estimation it is — I think the parties go back to table, and the players will be in much better shape. But there is a problem: How can the players go back to the table if they’re no longer a union?

The second thing going on, with less visibility, is that the NFL has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming the players’ union is not bargaining in good faith. The labor board generally takes its time dealing with those charges.

Is this an unprecedented situation?

Both sides are swimming in uncharted waters. Earlier this month, management moved substantially off their prior positions, but they had already poisoned the atmosphere by originally demanding an extra $1 billion off the top. It was going to be very tough to reach an agreement.

The last time the union decertified, in 1989, it ultimately led to a new deal that included free agency, which was hard to achieve through bargaining. This time around they’ve identified the issues, which mainly revolve around money, and they are not matters of principle.

What will be the lasting impact of this situation?

I expect the legal issues will work their way through the process, and ultimately there will be a deal. I don’t think we will miss any football this year. This set of negotiations will also determine how the NFL and the players’ association interact for the next 20 years.

I’m not worried about the long-term impact on football because the sport is too good a product and too good for the viewer. This situation may, however, set the pattern for what could happen in the sport of basketball, where the chances for a lockout this off-season are even greater.