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That scenario would be “difficult, if not impossible, to unscramble the egg and return those players” to their original teams if the NFL were to ultimately win this case, league attorneys wrote in a court filing. League spokesman Greg Aiello declined further comment.

The league has accused the players of a “heads I win, tails you lose” tack that wants antitrust scrutiny to apply whether there’s a lockout or not.

“Many observers believe that antitrust laws do a really crappy and imperfect job of dealing with sports and therefore the solution is to force these parties to collectively bargain together,” said Stephen Ross, director of the Penn State Institute for Sports Law, Policy and Research. “If you believe that, then you are going to think the decertification isn’t really legitimate.”

Jeffrey Kessler, a lead attorney for the players, represented them two decades ago when they decertified after the failed strike in 1987, went to court and eventually settled with the owners with the just-expired CBA that created modern free agency.

“It was not a sham then, and it is not a sham now,” Kessler said. “The players have given up valuable things in a union.”

Jonathan Rubin, a Washington trial attorney and antitrust expert, said he sees an “uphill battle” for the players in court.

“Because they could be prevented from shopping for the legal framework, whether that’s antitrust law or labor law. The federal court might decide that this is not within the power of private parties to determine by contract, which is the implicit thing the players are asking for,” said Rubin, a former partner of DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL Players Association before it dissolved. “It’s a very tricky case, because there’s very little precedent to go on.”

Rick Karcher, director of the Florida Coastal School of Law’s Center for Law and Sports, disagreed.

“There’s nothing in the labor laws or by court precedent anywhere that says the labor force in a workplace has to be a certified union,” Karcher said. “That’s dangerous precedent, and I don’t think any court would order such a thing. That’s why I think the union has a stronger case.”

Ross added: “Sports fans right now should be rooting for the players. If the judge grants the injunction the league will not be able to lock out the players, and they’ll go back to the bargaining table” to talk about a deal.

Ah, a deal. That’s what fans are wishing for.

“Ultimately both parties are better off sticking to the business of football,” Rubin said, “and both parties know that somewhere deep down and they’re going to have to get to a point where there’s diminishing returns to continuing litigation.”


AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell and Associated Press Writer Amy Forliti contributed to this report.