Earlier tonight, I explained that the league’s flirtation with a finding of contempt of court has intensified in the wake of Judge Susan Nelson’s order denying the NFL’s request for a stay of the ruling lifting the lockout. After reading the full text of her latest written opinion, I need to revise that.
It’s no longer flirtation. It’s beyond flirtation. It’s beyond courtship. We’re convinced that, if the league doesn’t open for business immediately, the league will be in contempt of court.
In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that the league already is.
The logic is simple. The league argued in support of the motion for a stay that forcing it to open the doors and transact business will cause irreparable harm to the NFL. Judge Nelson concluded that it won’t. Thus, Judge Nelson believes that the very thing that league wanted to avoid via a stay — ending the lockout and starting the 2011 league year, which would have begun on March 12 absent a lockout — must now occur.
One isolated sentence from Judge Nelson’s order has caused some to conclude that the league is not required to launch free agency. “In fact, nothing in this Court’s Order obligates the NFL to even enter into any contract with the Players,” Judge Nelson writes at page 8 of the order.
To fully understand that sentence, it must be considered within the context that it appears. Here’s the full paragraph, which addresses the league’s concern that any rules imposed for 2011 after ending the lockout will be attacked as violations of the antitrust laws: “Accordingly, the NFL is only in the position of any defendant who has been accused of illegal action, but not (yet) found liable. The League can choose either to continue its allegedly-illegal behavior until judgment, or to modify its behavior. But nothing legally compels either choice between April 25th and any future Eighth Circuit decision. In such an environment, the Players cannot force any onerous contract terms on the NFL. In fact, nothing in this Court’s Order obligates the NFL to even enter into any contract with the Players. In short, the world of ‘chaos’ the NFL claims it has been thrust into — essentially the ‘free-market’ system this nation otherwise willfully operates under — is not compelled by this Court’s Order.”
The sentence in question is part of an explanation that the lifting of the lockout doesn’t require the league to adopt specific rules or, taking it to the extreme, to adopt no rules and to allow all 32 teams to compete for player services without any restrictions. Judge Nelson’s point is that the ruling requires the NFL to do nothing other than end the lockout.
And by requiring the NFL to end the lockout, Judge Nelson necessarily has compelled the league to conduct business as usual. Teams aren’t required to enter into contracts with players, but the league is required to launch free agency.
Thus, the league can comply with Judge Nelson’s orders only by ending the lockout, and everything that goes along with it.
Basically, the league should be conducting business as usual. And if anything unusual happens, it will be evidence that the league is defying Judge Nelson’s order.