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NFL tells court only talks can end lingering labor dispute

The NFL filed its reply brief to the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday -- the final piece of business due from either party before the June 3 hearing in St. Louis -- and the league took the opportunity to reiterate its core arguments.

The NFL told the appeals court that U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson lacks the jurisdiction to rule on the lockout-lifting injunction and that the NFL Players Asssociation's decertification needs to go before the National Labor Relations Board first. The league also said Nelson can't issue an injunction to end a lockout that "grows out of a labor dispute," per the Norris-LaGuardia Act, and the non-statutory labor exemption bars the antitrust claims made in the Brady et al lawsuit against the NFL.

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The league's conclusion reads: "This Court should vacate the District Court's grant of a preliminary injunction and remand with instructions to dismiss or stay the action."

A dismissal of the entire antitrust suit would deal a devastating blow to the players' side, and the NFL additionally asked that the court make clear a resolution to the situation "lies with the labor laws and not the antitrust courts."

The next round of court-ordered mediation between the parties is scheduled for June 7 in Minneapolis.

However, league sources indicate an appeals court ruling in the NFL's favor wouldn't necessarily discredit the whole of Brady et al. Rather, specific language in such a ruling would dictate any fallout on the larger antitrust suit.

Nelson granted the players the preliminary injunction and chose not to stay that decision in late April, leading to a brief lifting of the lockout. The appeals court first granted a temporary injunction of Nelson's ruling, leading to the lockout being reinstated, then on May 16 granted the NFL a stay-on-appeal, which preserves the league's right to lock out the players until a ruling on the appeal.

Last Friday, just minutes before the midnight deadline, lawyers for the players filed their response to the league's original appeal. In that document, the players described the NFL as a "cartel" that has skirted antitrust laws and damaged their careers with a work stoppage that has lasted more than two months.

In its Thursday filing, the NFL called that brief a "straw man" attack that made blanket suggestions and ignored important pieces of legislation.

The league combated the players' contention that the previous collective bargaining agreement included a provision that the league couldn't dispute a union decertification. The NFL says it agreed only not to dispute a decertification that came following the expiration of the CBA, and that provision isn't applicable because this one came hours before the labor deal expired March 11.

The primary argument of the NFL on the Norris-LaGuardia Act is that the lockout "involves or grows out of a labor dispute", which under the law would preclude Nelson from issuing the injunction. The league says labor disputes aren't limited to those involving unions and also dismisses volumes of cases that the players provide as precedent against the league's argument because of a lack of specific involvement of Norris-LaGuardia in those.

The NFL's argument on the NLRB's jurisdiction is fairly straight-forward, saying the labor board must rule on the validity of the NFLPA's decertification before any aspect of the Brady et al suit moves forward. The players' argument is that it's unlikely the NLRB would rule against them, on a claim that was filed over three months ago, that the decertification was valid and that deferring to the NLRB would only work to slow the process.

On the non-statutory labor exemption, the NFL claims it shouldn't have been subject to the antitrust case in the first place. The players' argument is that the exemption "lasts only until the collapse of the collective bargaining relationship," which they say happened at the time of decertification.

"No student of the history of this industry -- and no one familiar with the NFLPA leadership's very recent statements of purpose and intent -- believes that the Union is gone, let alone gone forever," attorneys for the NFL wrote.

Much of the brief was spent attempting to dispel precedents the players presented to support their case.

Judge Kermit Bye dissented on the decision to grant the NFL the temporary and the longer stays, and he's the only appointee of a Democratic president (Bill Clinton) on the three-judge panel. Judge Steve Colloton and William Duane Benton were appointed by President George W. Bush.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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