- Associated Press - Friday, May 20, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - A nonprofit group that has been fighting sport work stoppages has weighed in on the NFL court battle, saying ending the lockout is in the best interest of consumers.

The Sports Fans Coalition, which says it gives fans a voice on public policy issues and fights for fan access to games, filed a brief Friday in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It supports the players and wants the lockout lifted, noting that fans spend billions of dollars to see their teams perform.

"Whether the owners’ boycott lowers the quality of the 2011 season by preventing fans’ favorite clubs from integrating new talent during this summer, or disrupts or even eliminates the season if the boycott fails to achieve the desired concessions from players, injunctive relief is essential to sports fans," attorneys for the Sports Fans Coalition wrote.

The players also want to end the lockout, saying it is causing them irreparable harm _ the players can’t work out, or sign contracts with any of the 32 clubs while the lockout persists. A federal judge in Minnesota agreed and lifted the lockout April 25, but the league appealed.

The appeals court reversed U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson’s decision just four days later. And on Monday, the appellate court ruled the lockout can stay in place until a full appeal is heard on whether it is legal. Attorneys for the players were expected to file briefs later Friday, in advance of an appeals court hearing June 3 in St. Louis.

In keeping the lockout, the appellate court said it believes the NFL has proven it "likely will suffer some degree of irreparable harm without a stay."

The players have a federal antitrust lawsuit against the league pending before Nelson. The main issues in the antitrust case need to be resolved, but the legality of the lockout is the fight for now.

The NFL has argued in its appeal that lifting the labor lockout without a new contract in place would allow better-off teams to sign the best players, tipping the NFL’s competitive balance and damaging the league.

The league says the union’s move to decertify after the initial bargaining talks broke down is a sham; that Nelson does not have the jurisdiction to lift the lockout; and, that she should have waited for a decision from the National Labor Relations Board before issuing that ruling.

The league also said that lifting the lockout with no labor deal in place would cause chaos, with teams trying to make decisions on signing free agents and making trades under a set of rules that could change drastically under a new agreement.

"It would be difficult, if not impossible, to unscramble the eggs and return those players to clubs that otherwise may have had contract arrangements with (or, at least, a greater ability to enter into contracts with) such players in the absence of an injunction," the league has said in court filings.

The group of players suing the league, including star quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, have said the lockout is inflicting irreparable harm on their brief playing careers by preventing them from working out at team headquarters, holding full practices with teammates and coaches and jeopardizing games.

The longer the fight over how to divvy up $9 billion in annual revenue drags on, the closer the league and players get to missing games. The first preseason game is Aug. 7, with the regular season opener between the Saints and Packers set for Sept. 8 in Green Bay, Wis.

When it comes to the overall antitrust lawsuit, attorneys for the players filed documents in U.S. District Court on Friday, opposing a league request for more time to respond to the claim. The league has argued it shouldn’t have to respond to the lawsuit until the appeal over the lockout is resolved.

But the players say the lawsuit will go forward whether or not the lockout is lifted and that the NFL’s request for an extension is "yet another deliberate step in their campaign to crush the players by extending the lockout for as long as they can."

Also this week, the NFL owners and players finished their latest round of court-ordered mediation behind closed doors, without any signs of a new agreement.

Officials and attorneys for both sides said they will return for more closed-door talks with U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan on June 7. The two sides met for 16 days before talks fell apart March 11. Boylan presided over four days of mediation last month and two more days this week.

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