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Antitrust case delaying CBA?

Back in July, legal analyst Lester Munson looked at the potential impact of a pending antitrust lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court on the relationship between the NFL and its players union.

The case, involving a challenge to the league’s ability to enter into an exclusive headgear license with Reebok, turns on whether the NFL constitutes a single entity for the purposes of the specific antitrust law at play in that case.

If the league isn’t a single entity, then the process of coming together and deciding to do business with only one company violates antitrust laws.

Munson fears that the league would then parlay a favorable ruling into an attempt to take the position that the league is completely immune from any and all antitrust claims under each and every antitrust law. Most importantly, the league could take the position that the union would not be able to decertify and sue the league under antitrust law as an attack on various rules (such as the draft, free agency, and salary) that the league would then apply to all 32 franchises.

The problem is that such a position, in our view, would make it difficult for the league to avoid the argument in other legal contexts that players and coaches are employees only of the team, and not employees of the league itself.

The league has declined our request for comment on the potential impact of the pending antitrust litigation on the can’t-have-it-both-ways notion that, for employment purposes, the 32 teams are separate entities. And regardless of whether the league intends to attempt to take full advantage of a favorable antitrust ruling, a source with knowledge of the union’s thinking tells us that the NFLPA believes the league will wait for a ruling in the pending antitrust case until getting serious about working out a new CBA.

Given the expected timetable for a ruling, it appears that the unfloored year will unfold in 2010, with midnight being the expiration of the contract and potential imposition of a lockout, unless the union is wrong in its belief that the league is waiting for a ruling in the antitrust case.

If the union is right, then the safest course of action for the league would be to apply the leverage that comes from the uncertain outcome of the pending antitrust case in striking a new CBA. If, after all, the NFL loses the pending antitrust case, the pendulum will swing back to the players.

Bottom line? The pending antitrust case serves only to further complicate an already complex and tenuous situation.