Jeff Pash, executive vice-president and general counsel for the NFL, says… (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)
Reporting from New Orleans — The NFL, determined to keep its lockout in place, filed its response in federal court Monday to the players' class-action antitrust lawsuit, claiming there are no legal grounds for forcing the league to continue football operations.
The filing was made in the court of U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in St. Paul, Minn., who is scheduled to hear the antitrust claim on April 6.
In essence, the league is arguing:
•Congress has barred judges from stopping lockouts as part of the Norris-La Guardia Act, which was intended to limit the ability of employers to crack down on strikes. The league says that door swings both ways and that law also protects an employer's right to impose a lockout.
•The court needs to wait until the National Labor Relations Board rules on the complaint the NFL filed in February that the anticipated decertification by the NFL Players Assn. would be a sham. The NFLPA indeed decertified, paving the way to fight a lockout. The NLRB says it's still investigating the claim.
•The league is confronted with a Catch-22, saying the NFLPA is simultaneously trying to force league operations to continue, and make antitrust claims if the NFL attempts to act collectively.
•The NFLPA is still acting like a union — again, this is what the NFL claims — and therefore has not truly decertified, and has only claimed it has to gain leverage in bargaining. That's not permitted. The NFLPA has maintained it is now a trade association, not a union, and that it's acting as such.
The 57-page NFL document cites several examples of players speaking as if the NFLPA decertified to gain a tactical advantage in negotiations.
According to the filing, Kevin Mawae, president of the NFLPA, said in September that decertification was an "ace in our sleeve" and that "at the end of the day, guys understand the strategy, it's been a part of the union strategy since I've been in the league …"
Baltimore receiver Derrick Mason, an NFLPA player representative, said in November of the consequences of a potential decertification: "So are we a union? Per se, no. But we're still going to act as if we are one. We're going to still talk amongst each other, and we're going to still try to, as a whole, to get a deal done."
NFL lawyers said that although the league is ready to resume negotiations, it will not do so unless the NFLPA does so as a union, which would allow the sides to engage in collective bargaining. The league will not engage in discussions with the NFLPA, defendant to plaintiff.
"Our commitment is to negotiate," said Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead attorney. "We're not going to solve this in litigation. All that's going to do is delay a solution."
The NFLPA sent a letter Monday to NFL attorney Gregg Levy, reminding him that the league can contact the players' counsel Jeffrey Kessler, lead counsel on the antitrust case, to engage in pre-hearing talks.
In an interview Monday with ProFootballTalk Live, DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the former union, said: "The real issue is we want to play football, we've filed an injunction to try to get football back in homes again and get our guys back working and get our guys back playing the game that they love."