Nelson is the St. Paul U.S. District Court judge that is set to start hearing the antitrust case headed up by Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees representing NFL players in their ongoing battle with the NFL. As part of pretrial motions, the suit brought by former players is also being folded into the case of the current players and both will start moving forward today.
For the NFL fan, today may be more disappointing than entertaining. Today's start to arguments between the two sides will feature a bunch of guys in suits, but won't include Brady, Manning, Brees, commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL general counsel Jeff Pash. None of them are expected to appear as the players seek an injunction to the lockout by the owners.
What is at stake is whether the players can get the NFL to open its doors while the case works its way through the court system. After the players failed in their midseason strike in 1987 and owners brought in "scab" players – a debacle nobody intends to see the NFL repeat in its "protection of the shield" – the union fought back by decertifying. The case went to federal court and spent six years there while the sides fought it out over things like revenue sharing, player salaries and retirement benefits. While the issues are different this time around – based more on who gets the biggest slice of the pie – the scenario by which the framework has been laid is almost identical.
Judge Nelson is going to be asked to rule on many of the same issues that led the NFL and its players through the legal process from 1987-93. For those six years, the NFL operated without a CBA – something that could be more damaging to the game this time around.
One of the reasons the NFL has blown past the other major sports to become the most popular sports entity on the planet was that everyone shared in the collective good. It didn't become like baseball, where a handful of teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Mets, Angels, Dodgers and Cubs can spend massive amounts on free agents because they have their own individual TV deals that aren't shared equally among the other teams in the league. The Yankees have an annual local TV deal that dwarfs the local TV contracts teams like Minnesota and Kansas City have to broadcast their games. They're in the same league, but not on the same playing field.
In the NFL, all franchises have had an equal footing in terms of revenue generated by television contracts. The only major difference from one franchise to another is how many revenues streams (luxury boxes, naming rights, stadium signage, etc.) they can generate. The Metrodome is a dump, so the Vikings are annually at the bottom of the league in that category, but they benefit from the greater pie that is shared by all.
If the injunction being sought by players is granted, the league will be forced to open its doors, but, without a CBA, the NFL could degenerate into what Major League Baseball has become.
When the CBA reached critical mass after the 2009 season, the salary cap that had been in existence since the CBA as we knew it from 1994 on went away. With it went the salary floor – the opposite of the salary cap. Teams were required to pay up to the minimum salary level set forth under the CBA to assure that a miser owner couldn't keep a ton of money for himself and put together a rag-tag team with no expensive star players. The salary cap, which was intended to keep aggressive billionaires like Jerry Jones or Daniel Snyder from buying all of the top talent, was $128 million in 2009, the last year of the cap under the CBA. The salary floor was $112.1 million. Even if an owner didn't want to play players, he was required to spend almost 90 percent of the salary cap on player salaries.
If Judge Nelson grants the injunction being sought by the players, business will resume, but will be far from the same. The NFL wasn't a financial behemoth in the span of 1987-93. When the first salary cap was instituted in 1994, it was $34.6 million. Just 10 years later, Peyton Manning signed a seven-year contract for $99 million that has played out (and paid out). In 10 years, salaries grew with the pace of the game.
If the injunction is granted without a CBA, the owners will likely drag their feet on signing contract extensions and investing millions in guaranteed dollars. Free agency will be a question mark. A Wild West scenario of a couple maverick owners could cause a limited spending spree, while frugal owners pocket money and don't translate it to a proportional investment in players.
In the short term, fans are likely going to be ecstatic if Judge Nelson rules in favor of the players. The business of football may well begin again. But the rules will be greatly changed from what we've been used to. More damage and animosity could grow. In the short-term, what may be best for the fans is to get the injunction ruled on in favor of the players. In the long-term for the NFL, perhaps continuing the fight at the negotiation table rather than the courtroom may be the better path to take.
It won't be boring, but it won't be swift justice. By later today, we may already know where the case is headed, but the opening shot of this war is likely going to drag through the courts regardless. It could take months. It could take years. But, the long road to "Mission Accomplished" starts today.
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.