- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 6, 2011

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — NFL players and owners haven taken their fight to the courtroom.

Representatives from both sides arrived at a federal courthouse in St. Paul on Wednesday morning. A group of players is asking a judge to issue a preliminary injunction on the lockout the owners imposed after talks on a new collective bargaining agreement broke off three weeks ago.

Several players are in attendance including named plaintiffs Mike Vrabel, Vincent Jackson, Von Miller and Brian Robison. Veterans Tony Richardson and Charlie Batch and retired Hall of Famer Carl Eller are in court as well.

The court appearance 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 — with stars such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees among the plaintiffs and retirees and yet-to-play rookies joining them in support — are asking for an immediate end to the lockout on the basis of “irreparable harm” to their careers. The injunction request accompanies the antitrust lawsuit filed against the league after labor talks broke down on March 11.

Another lawsuit was filed Tuesday by draft-eligible Middle Tennessee State wide receiver Garrett Andrews, who alleges the league violated antitrust laws and created an anticompetitive market.

The league says it has the right to keep players from working and says the court must wait until the National Labor Relations Board rules on its claim that the players didn’t negotiate in good faith.

The fight is complicated and perhaps uninteresting to the average football plan in early April 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., where U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson will hold the hearing.

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 — has developed into one of the all-time nasty disputes in sports. 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 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 fresh leverage whenever talks on a new collective bargaining agreement resume. Of course, whatever Nelson decides will almost surely be appealed.

Confused? Just wait. It could become even more complicated if Nelson lifts the lockout, which wouldn’t be as simple as it might sound. How then to handle free agency could be a major contention, as far as which players are eligible and whether a salary cap would be in place.

This is one of the league’s arguments against the injunction, claiming the uncertainty of putting football back in place without a labor pact would have a “detrimental effect” on the league’s competitive balance.

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