BENNER: How will NFL's labor dispute play out? No one knows

October 16, 2010

With the National Football League season in full swing, it is easy to forget the gathering storm clouds of a labor impasse that threaten the 2011 schedule and, yes, Indy’s 2012 Super Bowl.

That said, do not—I repeat, do not—give credence to alarmists and doomsayers who believe the 2011 season and the 2012 Super Bowl are destined for the scrap heap. And, at the same time, do not—I repeat, do not—overdose on the optimism of those who insist the owners and players wouldn’t dare mess with America’s most successful sport, its biggest game and the $8-billion-a-year entertainment enterprise that is the NFL.

That’s because even the experts have absolutely no idea—zip, zilch, nada—as to how this is going to play out.

And one of those experts, a man who has traveled down this road before, resides here.

He is Gary Roberts, dean of the Indiana University School of Law on the campus of IUPUI and, within a few months, his number is likely to be on the speed dial of journalists across the nation seeking advice, perspective and, of course, predictions as to what might unfold.

For seven years, Roberts worked for the Washington, D.C., law firm of Covington and Burley, representing the NFL and then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue on matters of antitrust and labor. He left to go to Tulane University, where he became one of the nation’s foremost authorities on sports law.

At IU since 2007, Roberts continues to closely monitor the evolving dispute that will take center stage once the Super Bowl concludes next February.

“I still know most of the people and lawyers involved and I feel I’ve got a finger on the pulse of this as much as anyone on the outside,” Roberts said.

So …

“I don’t have a clue as to how it will play out … nobody does. There is just no way to predict. There are just too many what-ifs, and the legal issues are very, very complex.”

Roberts then proceeded to explain to yours truly some of those complexities, after which I was reminded why I’m not a lawyer.

As best I could translate, if the NFL Players Association is able to decertify as a union and turn its dispute into an issue of antitrust rather than labor, the NFLPA could score the first figurative touchdown in the dispute. Most likely, Roberts said, the players would likely file an antitrust lawsuit in the Minneapolis court of Federal Judge David Doty.

Doty has routinely ruled on the side of the players in cases that eroded the power that owners wielded, and eventually resulted in the players’ winning a measure of free agency in exchange for the owners gaining a salary cap.

Roberts said the attempt for union decertification—and the NFL’s attempt to block such an action—will be “the first salvo in the war” and may likely begin within minutes of the close of the current season when time expires at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii next February.

In any case, do not anticipate a quick resolution.

“This will go right down to crunch time, which means the start of training camps or beyond,” he said. “The rhetoric and animosity will be at a peak. Both sides will threaten the other, presenting the other as greedy and unreasonable. There will be massive public relations efforts, and it’s likely the politicians will get involved.

“It is going to be a spectacle with all the legal, political and public relations maneuvering.”

I asked Roberts about the wishes of the common folks, the fans, who just want their football.

“Neither side wants to undercut the unmatched affection fans have for the NFL,” he said. “But the popularity of the NFL is such that it has a long way to fall.”

And overall, Roberts said, fans will have little recourse other than to perhaps lobby their representatives in Congress to pressure both sides for a resolution.

When pressed for a prediction, Roberts envisioned a scenario where the 2011 preseason and perhaps two or three early-season games are lost but that ultimately, there will be a season … and a Super Bowl in Indy in 2012.

“But again,” he cautioned, “that’s just my guess. There is no way to truly say what will happen. From my perspective, it will be fascinating to watch.”

And for the rest of us, excruciating to listen.•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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