How the Doty decision changed face of NFL-NFLPA talks

With one 24-hour extension of the NFL CBA deadline in force, and a longer 7-10 day extension looking like a reality, it is possible that the labor strife that threatened to overshadow most of the traditional NFL offseason could go away soon with a new agreement.

The thanks that NFL fans and employees have if a new agreement is reached may go to an 82-year-old man, whose decision earlier this week effectively took away the leverage one side had over the other as the original Thursday, March 3, 11:59 pm ET deadline neared.

U.S. Senior District Judge David S. Doty has overseen the CBA between the league and the NFLPA since 1993. Several times he has sided with the players in court cases against the owners. ESPN’s legal analyst Lester Munson explained Doty’s role over the years.

Doty presided over the players’ momentous courtroom victories in the early ’90s. Although a jury of six women made the most important decision, the judge made additional rulings that helped the players expand on the jury’s verdict. The courtroom triumphs gave the players the leverage they needed to extract free agency and other benefits from the owners, as, with Doty’s guidance, the two sides negotiated what became the agreement of 1993. The litigation battle left the players suspicious of the owners and their intentions. The players were justifiably worried that the owners would not abide by the terms of the agreement. To make sure that they could enforce it, the players insisted that any disputes over its terms must be decided by Doty. Instead of the usual arbitration procedure that is found in most labor contracts, the 1993 settlement specifies that all grievances and problems must be submitted first to a “special master” selected jointly by the owners and the players, and then to Doty. Numerous disputes have followed the path to Doty for his ultimate decision. He has ruled both for the players and for the owners in these various disputes, but the players and their lawyers know that they will receive fair treatment in Doty’s courtroom. However, the process that leads to Doty’s door expires with the termination of the current CBA.

The current NFL television contract provisions for payment, even if there was a lockout of the players’ union by the owners, was challenged. The case went to Special Master Stephen B. Burbank, who ruled in favor of the NFLPA for $6.9 million, and then appealed to Doty, who ruled in a 28-page decision.

Read the full Judge Doty decision here: Doty NFL-NFLPA Case Decision (March 1, 2011)

The key part of the decision:

Broadcast contracts are an enormous source of shared revenue for the Players and the NFL. Under the SSA (Stipulation and Settlement Agreement), the Players rely on the NFL to negotiate these contracts on behalf of both the NFL’s own interests and the interests of the Players. In May 2008, the NFL opted out of the final two years of the CBA, and recognized that a lockout in 2011 would help achieve a more favorable CBA. Thereafter, the NFL sought to renegotiate broadcast contracts to ensure revenue for itself in the event of a lockout. The record shows that the NFL undertook contract renegotiations to advance its own interests and harm the interests of the players. The NFL argues that the SSA does not require it to act in good faith in 2011 or subsequent seasons, that lockouts are recognized bargaining tools and that it is entitled to maximize its post-SSA leverage. The court agrees. However, under the terms of the SSA, the NFL is not entitled to obtain leverage by renegotiating shared revenue contracts, during the SSA, to generate post-SSA leverage and revenue to advance its own interests and harm the interests of the Players. Here, the NFL renegotiated the broadcast contracts to benefit its exclusive interest at the expense of, and contrary to, the joint interests of the NFL and the Players. This conduct constitutes “a design … to seek an unconscionable advantage” and is inconsistent with good faith.

In short, Doty ruled the NFL shorted the players by not maximizing potential revenues as required by the CBA terms. The ruling effectively took away the owners’ leverage as they could have waited out as games and paychecks were missed by the players, putting the players in a disadvantaged position by their partners in the CBA.

Ultimately, the ruling took away funding to pay debt service on stadiums and other obligations the owners had in the event of a work stoppage. Both sides were now on equal footing, especially as Doty has yet to rule if the $4 billion in question should go into escrow if there is a lockout. A great analysis of the decision and its’ impact was written by The New York TimesRichard Sandomir.

A lot can happen between now and the ratification of a new CBA agreement between the NFL and NFLPA, as there are still major divides on division of revenues, post-career health care, an 18-game schedule, etc., but Doty’s decision leveled the playing field between the two sides and gave hope to fans who want to talk about upcoming free agency, the 2011 NFL Draft and next year’s schedule, not lockouts and decertification, over the next few months.

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