The owners now hold all the cards, which could be bad for the fans.

NFL Lockout: Courts Have Given Owners the Upper Hand

Late Monday afternoon, the Eighth Circuit of the U.S. District Court of Appeals granted the NFL a temporary stay of Judge Susan Nelson’s ruling to enjoin the lockout after 17 days of what we assume to be deliberation and not thumb-twiddling. Although, this is the American judicial system we’re talking about here.

The stay is temporary at this point, but granting the stay until the June 3rd hearing likely means these same three judges (in another 2-1 vote) will side with the NFL and give the owners the ability to shut down the 2011 season entirely should they so choose.

As pointed out by Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com, who is basically useless except for the legal aspect of this ordeal considering his past as an attorney, the judges likely tipped their hand and already gave us a glimpse as to what they’re thinking heading into the actual hearing:

“[W]e have serious doubts that the district court had jurisdiction to enjoin the League’s lockout, and accordingly conclude that the League has made a strong showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits.”

If the judges believe now that the NFL is likely to win their appeal outright, there is probably very little the players can say in court to convince them otherwise. It’s possible, since one of the three judges is so much in the players’ favor it’s hard to believe he was never a member of the NFLPA, that the players could sway one of the two other judges, but it seems highly unlikely at this point.

The players have been beaten down in court and, unless they’re truly delusional, understand they have very little to stand on at the moment. They’ve somehow even managed to lose the majority of the public in all these fights.

Should the NFL choose to play hard-ball and really try to bend the players over a barrel, they can now do that. If there is a portion of — or the entirety of — the season lost, it will be very easy for the owners to just make it seem like the players were sore losers and rejected everything the league presented simply for that reason.

As I’m going through all of this, I’m starting to realize the players have even less leverage at this point than I thought. Realistically all they could do is threaten a strike in the future if they’re forced to accept a deal that they do not find fair, but that’s jumping the gun a bit at the moment.

So it’s bad news for the players, great news for the owners, and the fans are left somewhere in the middle per usual. Mediation has started up once again and U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan will have his work cut out for him. Word has it that he asked the league to make another offer, and that they have done so. How serious that offer actually is has yet to be seen, but there are some reports of progress.

The truly interesting thing for me in all of this is the timing of the Eighth Circuit in handing down their decision. It could be pure coincidence that the ruling is handed down on the exact day both sides were scheduled to restart mediation, but it’s also possible this was a calculated move by the judges to make sure they don’t have to show up for that June 3rd hearing.

By handing down the ruling right as mediation is beginning and giving one side (the owners) the upper hand, it could mean a greater chance the other side (the players) listens just a bit more closely to every offer put on the table. Had they handed down the ruling before mediation even began it could have created a tense environment for the players, knowing they’re coming into the battle heavily out-gunned, and made the owners a bit more smug and arrogant if such a thing is possible.

But with the ruling coming while both sides are sitting at the table, if forces both parties to react on the fly. The owners haven’t had time to think of all the ways they can stick it to the players and the players aren’t inclined to just skip the mediation altogether.

The court could have dragged out handing down the ruling in the hopes that both sides would feel even at the negotiating table, but we’ve seen how that has worked in the past. Rather than realizing both sides are in a bind, each side believed they would win in court and any negotiating done was a sham to further both sides’ goals in the PR wars.

It will be very interesting to see how the league reacts in victory. They can take it for what it is, which is only a temporary win, and not push their luck in court any further and get serious about negotiating, or they can stick out their tongues and thumb their noses at the players while they offer insane deals they know the players could never accept.

Smart money says they go with the latter, but the former sure would be nice.

Tags: Football NFL NFL Lockout Roger Goodell

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