ST. PAUL, Minn. - NFL players and owners haven taken their fight to the courtroom.
Lawyers for the players asked a judge on Wednesday to grant a preliminary injunction that would lift a lockout imposed by owners three weeks ago after negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement broke off.
Named plaintiffs Mike Vrabel, Ben Leber, Vincent Jackson, Brian Robison and Von Miller were joined in court by veterans Tony Richardson and Charlie Batch and Hall of Famer Carl Eller. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, the three highest profile plaintiffs, did not attend.
The court appearance, in front of U.S. District Court Judge Susan Richard Nelson, is the first round between the NFL and its locked-out players in their legal fight over the future of the $9 billion business including the 2011 season.
The players say the lockout is causing "irreparable harm" to their careers. The injunction request accompanies the antitrust lawsuit filed against the league after labor talks broke down on March 11.
"All of these players are being affected every day by being locked out," James Quinn, a lawyer for the players, argued on Wednesday.
The owners say the court does not have jurisdiction to issue the injunction while the National Labor Relations Board is considering an unfair labor complaint. They characterize the players' decision to decertify the union "a sham" that compromised the collective bargaining process.
The league says it has the right to keep players from working and says the court must wait until the NLRB rules on its claim that the players didn't negotiate in good faith.
David Boies, an attorney for the NFL, argued that the players are still acting like a union, saying the NFLPA is funding the litigation and has set up other services for the players as if it were still a fully formed labor entity.
"They're financing this lawsuit," Boies said. "They're saying, 'We're no longer a collective bargaining agent, but we're going to continue to do all these things."'
Quinn dismissed the accusation, pointing to a vote that every player took to approve decertification.
"It's not some kind of tactic. It's the law," Quinn said. "It's what we're allowed to do."
The fight is complicated and perhaps uninteresting to the average football fan when the scheduled start of the season is still five months away. But the fate of everyone's favorite team hangs in the balance.
"Even though football is enjoying this unprecedented popularity ... nothing is invulnerable," said David Allen Larson, a professor of labor and employment law at Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minn..
It's the first work stoppage in the NFL since the 1987 strike and the first in any major U.S sports league since the NHL's lockout-lost 2004-05 season. The players balked at more financial concessions when the owners wouldn't open their books, and the owners insist the decertification of the union is a sham cooked up only to apply leverage in the fight.
Now, they don't even agree on which laws apply to the case, with the owners arguing for labor law and the players preferring antitrust rules.
Nelson pressed Boies for much of the morning, asking if the antitrust exemption the league currently enjoys applies to a lockout after the union has decertified.
"The very fact that the union planned to do this affects what they do in the collective bargaining process," Boies said.
Nelson responded that decertification is fair because the union gives up certain rights as well, including the right to strike.
Nelson isn't likely to rule on the injunction request Wednesday. She could side with the players and grant the injunction, putting pro football back in business. Or she could side with the owners and either deny the injunction or wait to decide until the NLRB rules on the league's contention that decertification was an improper bargaining ploy.
The winner would have leverage whenever talks on a new collective bargaining agreement resume. However, whatever Nelson decides likely will be appealed.