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NFL, players face off in St. Louis as season remains in jeopardy

By Tom Watkins, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • No indication is given in court Friday that an agreement is near
  • Players argue that the league's lockout is illegal
  • The appeals court has allowed the lockout to remain in place

St. Louis (CNN) -- Lawyers for the NFL and the players returned to court Friday, making their cases for and against the legality of a nearly three-month-old lockout but giving no indication that any agreement might be near to salvage the football season.

"It's like church on Easter Sunday," said a court officer as he attempted to pack more people into the benches of the 28th-floor courtroom of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where scores of players joined dozens of journalists and members of the general public to watch the proceedings.

The lawyers' arguments focused on the legality of a lockout imposed by the owners after mediation talks dissolved on March 11.

With each side allocated half an hour, the lawyers sparred over the decision by Judge Susan Nelson, of U.S. District Court in Minnesota, who ruled on April 25 that the league's lockout of the players was illegal and that the players were suffering irreparable harm as a result.

Since then, the appeals court here has ruled twice in favor of the league owners, allowing the lockout to remain in place during the appeal.

But attorney Ted Olson, representing the players, gave little weight to the stay granted to his opponents, noting that the panel had not had an opportunity to read the briefs and hear the oral arguments in the case. "We believe that the arguments that we presented in the briefs and in the oral arguments will be persuasive," he told reporters outside the courthouse.

He left no doubt about whom he blamed for the impasse. "The National Football League canceled the collective-bargaining agreement that they negotiated and entered into," he said. "And then they unilaterally called a lockout, stopping football in its tracks. The players didn't do that. The National Football League did that."

The league says the court has no jurisdiction to end the lockout.

The NFL lawyer, Paul Clement, argued that lockouts are a common and legal way to push labor disputes toward resolution. He repeatedly cited the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which he said prohibits federal district courts from issuing injunctions in matters involving labor disputes.

But Olson noted that the players ended their relationship with the NFL Players Association when the talks ended on March 11. That move ended their collective bargaining relationship, meaning the case was no longer a labor dispute and had entered the realm of anti-trust, he said.

"The league desperately wants these employees to be part of the union so they can continue to violate the anti-trust laws," he said. He added that the players are "perfectly happy" to be protected by anti-trust laws rather than by a union. "The laws of the United States give them that choice."

Clement had another view.

"The fastest way to get football back on the field is to get extraneous anti-trust law considerations out of this and get back to the bargaining table," he told reporters. "The laws provide that the way you get labor peace when you have a dispute about the terms and the conditions of employment is that you don't have the anti-trust laws involved. You have negotiations between interested parties and you get to a settlement. And then it's not an anti-trust settlement, it's a labor settlement. And then you get back on the field."

Asked by Judge Kermit Bye if he believes the lockout is causing irreparable harm to the players, Clement said he did not. He added that he had heard reports "virtually on a daily basis where players are saying this is the best thing that ever happened" in that they were able to spend more time with their families.

Asked whether players were suffering financial harm, Clement said that any such harm could not be considered irreparable. "That's classic reparable harm," he said. "Missing a paycheck" can pressure players to reach an agreement to get back on the field, he said. "That's exactly why the labor laws give you the tool of a lockout."

Separately, the players association and the owners met this week in Chicago -- unaccompanied by their usual coterie of lawyers, but representatives of neither side would talk Friday about what was said.

But the prospect of such talks rendering Friday's court hearing moot was not lost on anyone in the courtroom. "The issues are complex," Bye told the lawyers as the proceeding was wrapping up. "We'll take this case and render a decision in due course. We won't, I might also say, be all that hurt if you should go out and settle the case, but that's up to you."

St. Louis Rams offensive tackle Adam Goldberg said he attended the hearing to support the other players and show the public they want to get back on the field. "We want to play. We want to get back to work doing what it is we're trained to do -- to put out a great product on Sundays."