Five need-to-knows about the 8th Circuit's pending ruling

MINNEAPOLIS -- The email could have come across like a tombstone: Here lies the start of the 2011 NFL league year.

"The NFL clubs were notified tonight that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a temporary stay of the injunction entered by Judge (Susan) Nelson," league spokesman Greg Aiello wrote Friday, one day after players had started reporting to team facilities. "As a result, the clubs have been told that the prior lockout rules are reinstated, effective immediately."

But the court's decision means little. Its big decision likely will come this week.

If the 8th Circuit grants the league the full stay it desires, its right to lock out players will be preserved until an appeal is heard. That likely won't be done until the summer, so offseason programs for teams could be completely lost.

If the 8th Circuit denies the stay, the league year will begin, and all offseason activities will start. That would put the league in the awkward spot of trying to shut the doors for a third time.

Here are five need-to-know items entering the next stage of the labor dispute:

Temporary stay buys court time

The players' argument that a league-imposed lockout inflicts irreparable harm on them was central to their opposition to stay motions before Nelson, then the 8th Circuit. But the 8th Circuit's granting of the temporary stay makes sense because of the timing.

Nelson waited until late Monday, three days before the draft, to rule, making it highly unlikely that the 2011 league year would open before the Carolina Panthers went on the clock at Radio City Music Hall. Maybe it was unfair -- any damages due players can be worked out later -- but that's the reality.

Given that the harm done to players, unable to sign or be traded, wouldn't have been avoided by denying the temporary stay, all the court did in granting it was avoid a potential 48-, 72- or 96-hour league year, with free agency and trades opening, the draft starting, the possibility of another shutdown looming and teams operating in a "Wild West" scenario under the threat of collusion charges.

By granting a temporary stay, the court can take its time in making a decision on a full stay.

Politics might play a role

It's true that U.S. District Judge David Doty was a Reagan appointee and Nelson an Obama appointee, and the NFL always has seen the court in Minnesota as more worker-friendly. The 8th Circuit, on the other hand, is known as a more business-friendly, conservative court.

The NFL does own a spotty record in the 8th Circuit, where the Atlanta Falcons lost the Michael Vick bonus-money case, in which judges Doty and Steven Colloton were involved in 2008. But nine of the court's 11 judges were appointed by Republican presidents, and that dynamic reared its head soon after Brady et al v. National Football League et al landed on its desk.

The three-judge panel that ruled on the temporary stay also will decide on the full stay and any appeal. Bush appointees Colloton and William Duane Benton ruled in favor of the league in the temporary stay, but Clinton appointee Kermit Bye dissented. That's an important detail, as majority will rule, so the players will have to convince at least two judges to deny the stay.

Is the fact that Bush appointed two of the three judges a pivotal factor? Maybe not, but it's worth mentioning.

May 12 will be another big day

That's when Doty is scheduled to hear arguments on what to do with some $4 billion in television revenue, following his March 1 ruling that the league secured that money in bad faith as a sort of "lockout fund."

Based on Doty's strongly-worded ruling, the players, who requested damages, could make out well. The question is, how well?

Doty could put the money in escrow, which likely would be a consolation for the owners, given their advantage in financial stability. Or Doty could split up the money, based on the percentages in the old collective bargaining agreement, which might bring the players $2 billion-plus -- financial backing to weather a longer labor fight.

Leverage points still hazy

Many people ask why the league and players can't easily divvy up $9.5 billion in revenue and go back to dominating the American sports landscape. But the negotiations are all about leverage points (lockout money, status of the lockout itself, etc.), and so many remain undefined.

The problem was exacerbated March 11, when the sides emerged after 16 days of mediation on different playing fields -- the NFL trying to force collective bargaining, the players pushing litigation settlement. If the league must operate without a CBA, that would be bad for business and give the players an edge. Conversely, the longer the players are locked out, the more financial stress they could feel, giving the league the upper hand.

The goal -- an agreement on the game's financial future -- is similar, but the methods of reaching it are different, and each side risks jeopardizing its position by playing on the other's field. Hence the stalemate.

Now a string of court decisions will dictate the leverage points. Once they're more clearly defined, things could move quickly.

Many believe a settlement is needed by July 15 to have a regular training camp and preseason. If that's not reached, sometime in August would be the cutoff for Week 1 to happen.

The one door that's open -- slightly

The last round of talks between the league and players, ordered by Nelson and mediated by U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, broke off after just four days in Minnesota, largely because the legal positions of each party prevented much movement. Boylan ordered both sides to return to the table May 16.

It's positive that the league and players again will talk in this protected environment, but it's tough to identify what will have changed since the sides left Boylan's chambers April 20. The TV revenue hearing will have happened, but there's a chance Doty won't rule before mediation restarts, meaning the obstacles that existed before largely will remain.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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