MINNEAPOLIS -- The NFL and the players' union took their fight over $4 billion in TV and wireless revenue before a federal judge in Minnesota on Thursday, a potentially critical issue just one week before their current labor pact expires.
U.S. District Court judge David Doty in Minneapolis, who has jurisdiction over NFL labor matters since a 1993 settlement that paved the way for unrestricted free agency, unsealed some details in the case.
He did not immediately rule on the NFL Players' Association appeal of a special master's decision earlier this month that lets the league keep $4 billion in broadcast rights fees. The union contends that money was carved out as a financial cushion -- leverage -- if NFL owners impose a lockout and the 2011 season is lost. The NFLPA argues that money should be escrowed.
Doty said he didn't want to put his "thumb on the scale of the collective bargaining" process, as NFL attorney Gregg Levy contended union lawyers are asking. Levy said "it would be repugnant to federal labor law" for Doty to intervene in this issue.
NFLPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler countered that it's the league's "thumb on the scale" in the labor talks, saying the billions in leverage was part of a long-devised lockout plan.
"We'd like the thumb removed," Kessler said.
The collective bargaining agreement expires next Thursday. Lawyers for both sides, citing a gag order, declined to comment on the negotiations as well as how the case could affect the talks.
The union contends the NFL failed to secure "maximum" revenue, as it is required to do, in both 2009 and 2010 when it re-negotiated broadcast contracts with Fox, NBC, ESPN, CBS and DirecTV that included revised "work-stoppage" plans. The NFLPA said the work-stoppage clauses in particular were struck to guarantee income for the NFL, giving it unfair leverage in the labor talks.
"Leverage, leverage, leverage. They said it to themselves over and over again. And why? To inflict economic harm on the players," said Tom Heiden, another attorney for the NFLPA.
The league contends seeking more revenue for 2009-10 deals would have been unsuccessful and angered the broadcast partners in a "depressed advertising market." Levy said the league believes it followed sound business principles that brought in "hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenues."
That argument was backed by the special master, Stephen Burbank.
In his decision, released for the first time Thursday, he said he couldn't believe the NFL had a duty to the union to "throw budgets and business plans in the wastebasket" even as he acknowledged the sharp disagreement between the two sides over how much the NFL can pursue its own business interests while following requirements of the labor pact.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell testified that the work-stoppage fees "could be used to meet" NFL debt obligations and cover operating costs, the decision said.
The decision also confirmed that Burbank had awarded the NFLPA $6.9 million to settle a dispute over revenue from an "extra" game granted by the NFL to NBC last season. The Oct. 31 game, between the Saints and Steelers, drew better ratings on a Sunday night than a competing World Series game between Texas and San Francisco.
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Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press