- Associated Press - Friday, March 11, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) - Unable to decide how to divvy up $9 billion a year, NFL owners and players put the country’s most popular sport in limbo Friday by breaking off labor negotiations hours before their contract expired.

The union decertified, and 10 players, including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, sued the owners in federal court, putting the NFL on a path to its first work stoppage since 1987.

Despite two extensions to the collective bargaining agreement during 16 days of talks overseen by a federal mediator _ and previous months of stop-and-start negotiating _ the sides could not agree on a new deal. The league said it hadn’t decided as of Friday evening whether to lock out the players, who, meanwhile, went to court to request an injunction to block such a move.

As was clear all along, the dispute came down to money. In the end, it appeared the sides were about $185 million apart on how much owners should get up front each season for certain operating expenses before splitting the rest of the revenues with players _ a far cry from the $1 billion that separated the sides for so long.

But the NFL Players Association refused to budge any further without getting detailed financial information for each team.

“I would dare any one of you to pull out any economic indicator that would suggest that the National Football League is falling on hard times,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said. “The last 14 days, the National Football League has said, ‘Trust us.’ But when it came time for verification, they told us it was none of our business.”

By dissolving and announcing it no longer represents the players in collective bargaining, the union cleared the way for class-action lawsuits against the NFL, which opted out of the CBA in 2008. The antitrust suit _ forever to be known as Brady et al vs. National Football League et al _ attacked the league’s policies on the draft, salary cap and free-agent restrictions such as franchise-player tags.

Invoking the Sherman Act, a federal antitrust statute from 1890 that limits monopolies and restrictions on commerce, the players are seeking triple the amount of damages they’ve incurred. That means the stakes here could be in the hundreds of millions.

It could take a month for there to be a ruling on the union’s injunction request, and antitrust judgments should take longer.

The court fights eventually could threaten the 2011 season for a league whose past two Super Bowls rank as the two most-watched programs in U.S. television history. The last time NFL games were lost to a work stoppage came when the players struck 24 years ago, leading to games with replacement players.

Even though the NFL is early in its offseason _ and the regular season is six months away _ this is hardly a complete downtime. Free agency usually begins in March, and there are hundreds of free agents now in limbo. Also this month, under a regular schedule, offseason workouts would start, and the owners meet to establish rules changes.

Plus, March and early April are when many sponsors and corporate partners renew their deals with the NFL, part of why the league says hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue are going to be lost now.

“This obviously is a very disappointing day for all of us. I’ve been here for the better part of two weeks now, and essentially … the union’s position on the core economic issues has not changed one iota,” New York Giants owner John Mara said. “One thing that became painfully apparent to me during this period was that their objective was to go the litigation route.”

The NFLPA also decertified in 1989. Antitrust lawsuits by players led to a new CBA in 1993 that included free agency, and the union formed again that year.

The sides met from 10 a.m. until about 4 p.m. Friday, discussing a new proposal by the owners. When the possibility of a third extension to the CBA was raised, the union said it first wanted assurances it would get 10 years of audited financial information.

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