Doty is a U.S. District Court judge who has become synonymous with the NFL since he was first given authority in antitrust matters in a suit filed by the USFL in its failed attempt to win hundreds of millions of dollars from the NFL in a landmark court case. That case in a Minneapolis courtroom set the standard for future challenges to the NFL's autonomy in a capitalistic society.
History doesn't remember that the USFL won its case against the NFL. They proved the league was in violation of antitrust laws. Unfortunately for Donald Trump and his fellow USFL owners, they had a Minnesota jury that didn't think the NFL really hurt them. They were an upstart competitor trying to catch up to the big dog. Minnesota jury logic dictated that the NFL was wrong, but the USFL shouldn't reap an undue harvest. The jurors – Minnesotans through and through – awarded the USFL the sum of $1.
In his authority, the most Doty could do as the presiding judge was treble the jury award. The USFL was cut a check for $3.
The upside (or downside, depending on your point of view) was that Doty became the man in whose court all future major motions to the U.S. District Court against the NFL would be heard. Last month, a Special Master hearing was filed with a grievance from the NFL Players Association saying the NFL's TV deals would pay the league $4.78 billion even if there wasn't a 2011 season to televise. After the league won that antitrust claim, the players union appealed the decision and, as has been the ritual of the federal court system, it ended up in front of Doty.
Doty was the judge who was instrumental in creating the modern era of free agency and is the judge of choice when it comes to NFL matters. On Tuesday, he brought the hammer down on the owners once again.
In his decision, Special Master Burbank awarded the NFLPA $6.9 million in damages, a little over 10 percent of what the union was seeking. But, more importantly, the union was attempting to take away the security blanket of the $4.78 billion in financial support to the owners through the TV contract whether a season is played or not – slightly under $150 million per team under the league's revenue-sharing program.
In his ruling, Doty said the NFL breached its union contract by accepting below-established market contracts for their TV deals in 2011 that not only produced less revenue to share with players, but also protected the owners by guaranteeing the payment whether a lockout potentially canceled the season entirely.
In his 28-page opinion, Doty said the record showed the NFL entered contract negotiations with the TV networks with the expressed idea that, if there was no 2011 season, the owners would still get paid while the players would not, creating an imbalance used to "advance its own interests and harm the players."
Doty overruled Burbank's decision and ordered another hearing to determine if the owners are liable to paying damages to the NFLPA, which, given the current cost split, would give the players half of the $150 million each team would receive from the TV deal, or to block the owners from collecting any of the TV money without a product on the field. The NFLPA is asking Doty to issue an injunction to put the TV money in escrow until a new labor agreement is worked out.
Doty is no stranger to overturning decisions made by Burbank, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, or bringing the hammer down on the NFL. Following the USFL case, he became the judge of record and was instrumental in presiding over the 1993 case brought by Reggie White that opened free agency and began the salary-cap era. Twice the NFL has tried to have Doty removed from his domain of collective bargaining issues.
Burbank has fared little better in terms of Doty's opinion as the NFL. His special master rulings have been shut down as well. Prior to Tuesday's overruling of a Burbank decision, Doty reversed another of his rulings. In 2008, while Michael Vick was in prison, Burbank ruled that he violated his contract with the Falcons, allowing the team to try to recover a portion of his $20 million signing bonus. Doty allowed just $3.5 million to be returned – and that was on a technicality at the initial signing of the contract that wasn't disputed by Vick's attorneys or the players association.
No date has been set to hear arguments on the ruling or motions from either side, but one thing is certain – the money owners thought would serve as lockout insurance isn't going to be immediately available. Considering Doty's tone in his ruling – making clear that the NFL violated the spirit of revenue sharing with its TV contract – this may be the spark needed to get both sides talking seriously at the table.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.