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Latest decision favors owners, leaving players to lean on Doty

The circuit court ruling that allows NFL owners to maintain their lockout of the players was powerful on two fronts.

1. It basically said the federal court in Minneapolis did not have the jurisdiction to force the owners to reopen their doors and resume business.

2. It strongly intimated that the league will win its appeal of Judge Susan Nelson's player-friendly ruling when the sides begin arguing their cases June 3 in St. Louis.

"In sum, we have serious doubts that the district court had jurisdiction to enjoin the League's lockout," the circuit court said after the three-judge panel voted 2-1 to enforce the temporary stay, "and accordingly (we) conclude that the League has made a strong showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits."

McCANN: Questions after Monday's ruling

Multiple lawyers said Monday those are powerful words. One went so far as to say, "It's an advanced telegraph of what the ruling will be from the June 3 hearing."

Perhaps. But the players still have an ace up their sleeve. His name is Judge David Doty.

The Minnesota-based district judge ruled March 1 that the owners not only had illegally created a $4 billion lockout fund by redoing its television contracts, but he also said they sought to "harm" the players. He held a hearing last Thursday to decide what damages should be awarded, and many people scratched their heads when the session ended without a firm date for announcing his intentions.

It's possible Doty wanted to wait and see how the circuit court ruled before announcing his ruling. The circuit court had already tipped its hand in favor of the owners by issuing a temporary stay of the lockout, so Monday's ruling for a permanent stay was not totally shocking. The same cannot be said of the language. It was powerful.

Doty has to know that if he allows the owners to have even limited access to the $4 billion lockout fund, the players have no chance of standing up to the owners in the short run. They simply lack the funds to withstand a season without paychecks. However if Doty gives the players what they were seeking in damages -- which is as much as $2.8 billion ($707 million in compensatory damages, plus up to three times that in exemplary/punitive damages) -- it could sustain the players if there were no football in 2011.

"His ruling is a lot more important now than it was an hour ago -- a heck of a lot more important," an attorney familiar with the case said shortly after the circuit court ruling. "The court's decision makes him even more of a player because now that he knows the 8th circuit is not going to be an impediment to the lockout, he could ask himself: Am I going to permit the league to use the $4 billion? Remember, he already has written that the money was obtained illegally and was done so to harm the players. His ruling was strong. This puts the spotlight back on him."

So while Monday's circuit court ruling was a major win for the owners, it won't be as significant a loss for the players if Doty provides them with a financial war chest that allows them to ride out a lockout in 2011.

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