- Associated Press - Saturday, March 12, 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; the league imposed a lockout.

Ten players, including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, sued the owners in federal court in Minneapolis. Then, at midnight, the owners locked out the players _ signaling the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987.

“We are locked out,” union president and former player Kevin Mawae said in a text message to The Associated Press. “We were informed today that players are no longer welcome at team facilities.”

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. Now they will be adversaries in court: The players already requested an injunction to block a lockout, even before one was in place.

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By dissolving and announcing it no longer represents the players in collective bargaining, the union cleared the way for class-action lawsuits against the NFL, which opted out of the CBA in 2008.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.

A lockout is a right management has to shut down a business when a CBA expires. It means there can be no communication between the teams and current NFL players; no players _ including those drafted in April _ can be signed; teams won’t pay health insurance for players; players are not allowed in team facilities.

If the lockout lasts long enough, it would lead to the cancellation of games.

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, team-organized offseason workouts would start. The lockout grinds all such activity to a halt.

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.

Story Continues →