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Judicial oversight of settlement shouldn’t be a sticking point for NFL


During a recent edition of PFT Live, we discussed the four big issues in the ongoing labor talks. There’s a widespread belief that, once the two sides find a way to resolve the biggest sticking point -- splitting up the money -- the rest of the deal will fall together like a tightly-configured row of upright dominoes.

But there’s one issue that will require one side or the other to completely yield. And it’s the one issue that is the least interesting to the non-lawyers in the crowd.

The labor deal that expired on March 11 arose from the settlement of the Reggie White antitrust lawsuit. As a result, certain types of disputes arising under the expired CBA were resolved first by a special master, then by presiding Judge David Doty, and then by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The NFL, convinced that Doty is biased in favor of the players (and presumably inclined to feel that Judge Susan Nelson feels the same way), wants to end any and all judicial oversight of the CBA.

Earlier this year, multiple sources indicated that the issue represented a true dealbreaker for the league. Even now, indications remain that the NFL will not agree to any settlement over which the federal courts retain supervision.

For four separate reasons, the NFL should find a way to give up on this point.

First, every labor agreement contains a mechanism for resolving disputes. So whether it’s Judge Nelson or whether it’s an independent arbitrator, someone other than the NFL and the reconstituted NFLPA will have final say over the application and/or interpretation of the agreement when it comes to the various fights that may arise.

Second, the issues that landed in the federal court system often arose not from a dispute regarding the application of the CBA to the facts, but from the specific meaning and intent of certain portions of the labor deal. With the use of foresight, the lawyers should account for most of the potential issues that could arise in advance, minimizing the circumstances in which the language of the CBA allows for two possible outcomes.

Third, the Eighth Circuit has proven to be, from the league’s perspective, an acceptable umbrella for the Minnesota federal courts. Thus, while it may take some extra time to bring these disputes to a conclusion, the NFL should realize that, when push comes to shove, fair consideration will be given to their arguments.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, these fights are rare and insignificant in the grand scheme of this multi-billion-dollar business arrangement. Once, maybe twice per year, the league and the NFLPA square off on an issue that lands before Judge Doty. Is it really worth refusing to do a deal in order to fight for an arbitration process that would still subject the league’s interests to a potentially arbitrary or, in the league’s view, flat-out erroneous reading of the labor deal?

Since the two sides are working hard to find outcomes that would allow both parties to win at best or save face at worst, the league should be willing to agree to a system that permits ongoing judicial oversight, but only as to a very narrow band of potential disputes. If that can’t be accomplished, the NFL should have no qualms about abandoning its opposition to judicial oversight, even if only to persuade the players to make the leap of faith that comes from taking a smaller piece of an ever-growing financial pie.