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Through mediation and litigation, NFL is right back where it started

If you're scoring at home, the NFL labor stand off has so far wound its way through well-chronicled rounds of mediation, negotiation, pontification and now litigation. All in the pursuit, never forget, of the healthy dose of remuneration (money, and lots of it) that both sides desperately covet.

And where are we really but right back where we started from weeks and weeks ago? The players and the owners are still talking, but now it's at each other rather than to each other. As Wednesday's big day in federal court proved, even the rules of the game still can't be agreed upon: You say litigation settlement talks, I say collective bargaining talks, and both sides threaten to call the whole thing off.

A month or so into what should have been another busy NFL offseason, we're still staring at what ultimately might wind up being the NFL's lost season. In recent memory has there been a worse 30 days to be a pro football fan, with all the non-stop spin, lawyer-issued legalese and mind-numbing rhetoric that this spectacularly ill-timed squabble between the league and its players has subjected us to? The Norris-LaGuardia Act? Really? Is that why we follow the NFL?

While some pretty significant events and tragic stories have been unfolding around the world, the NFL and its former players union apparently haven't let it interfere with their own unique version of fantasy football. And they certainly haven't offered fans any welcomed diversion from the headlines of the day, choosing instead to keep their blinders firmly in place as they plow onward toward the next deadline in this financial-inspired showdown.

Honestly, at this point can anyone tell much of a difference between the dueling sub-plots inherent in the league's lockout and the potential government shutdown, other than, you know, the government may not be responsible for as much revenue and definitely doesn't generate anywhere near as much fan interest? Both, no doubt, will be costly maneuvers, but I'm guessing the government gets back to work before the NFL does.

If anyone thought the end of this stalemate might start coming into sight with the arrival of Wednesday's hearing in St. Paul on the players' request for an injunction to lift the lockout, they probably weren't paying real close attention for the past month. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson held court for almost five hours, then said she would take "a couple weeks'' to decide whether to grant an injunction.

But no matter which side she decides in favor of -- and most of the tea leaf reading so far indicates she'll side with the players and issue a motion to end the lockout -- the decision almost certainly will be appealed in the Eighth Circuit Court, which consists of a three-judge panel. So even if the NFL loses in Minnesota, there will be another legal game to come, and this time the proceedings will shift to St. Louis. It means more weeks of limbo for the league and its players in regards to preparations for the 2011 season, and more waiting for the fans of the game, who are rapidly losing faith in anyone's ability to settle a conflict that should be a clear-cut win-win situation for both sides.

Nelson could have ordered the league and the players back to the negotiating table, but instead urged them to return to talks while she decides whether to issue an injunction. That's a request sure to fall on deaf ears. The NFL has made it clear it has no interest in talking about settlement of the antitrust lawsuit the players filed, because it doesn't want to repeat history and forge a collective bargaining agreement out of a settlement negotiation, most likely giving the federal courts supervision over the CBA (see Doty, Judge David, 1993). The NFL wants a CBA crafted between it and its players in federal mediation, but free of the courts, like every other professional sports league.

As for the players, they want a court-orchestrated settlement of their lawsuit to carry the day, and have no interest in going back into strictly CBA negotiations in federal mediation, because to do so would only weaken their position that their decertification as a union was entirely legitimate. It's your basic Catch-22. Both sides want to resume talking, but only on the grounds they feel most comfortable legally. The league says CBA, but no settlement. The players say settlement, but otherwise no CBA.

The reality is neither side is going to do anything to end this saga until it is compelled to, either by legal ruling or by seeing the writing on the wall. It could have been you, or I, or Judge Nelson urging the two sides to resume negotiations Wednesday, and their response would have been roughly the same: "No thanks, unless we're playing by the rules we favor.''

So here we sit, amid every indication the league will continue to remain largely dormant for the foreseeable future. We found out this week the NFL's 2011 regular-season schedule will be released at some point before the draft starts on April 28, and of course there's still the three-day pick-fest at Radio City Music Hall to look forward to.

But somehow both of those events are likely to feel a little like placebos, or maybe mirages in the desert, this season. Finding out about all the great games to come won't be as much fun when we're not 100 percent certain they really will come. And even the anticipation of another rookie class entering the NFL will be dulled by the reality that the only pictures we may see of those players in uniform for quite some time will have been taken in 2010, in their college colors. We'll get the fresh snap shots of the draft picks holding up their new NFL jerseys in New York or at a team press conference, but that may be it for a long while. The longer this lockout and court fight goes, the harder it's going to be to visualize what the schedule and the draft means in the context of the jeopardized 2011 season.

It's only the first week of April, but you get the feeling it's already later than we know. Even if the injunction decision comes down in a couple weeks, the appeal process probably eats up May and puts us well into June before the earliest possible start of the new league year. And given the "progress'' that has transpired so far, even that timetable may prove overly optimistic. If and when real football resumes, free agency, offseason workouts, training camp and the preseason might all be compressed into a short time frame this summer. And that's if we're fortunate to have any football at all before the fall.

It's been a bad month to be an NFL fan, and the worst part is this deadlock looks only slightly closer to ending than it did weeks ago, in early March. Mediation, negotiation, pontification and litigation have gotten the combatants almost nowhere. It's no fun to watch, and no fun to follow. The NFL labor fight is nothing but a pain, but it's the only meaningful game going right now.

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