The Issue of Judge David Doty

The NFL owners find themselves between a rock and a hard place as their frustrating negotiations with the players union creep closer to Friday’s midnight extension deadline, and more importantly, the 5 p.m. deadline for the union to decertify.

The owners are asking for substantial financial concessions from the union to balance a partnership that they claim has gotten out of whack. The union has asked them to open their books and show them why that is necessary. The owners, perhaps embarrassed by all of the financial stupidity that would be revealed, don’t want to do that.

If they continue to resist though, and the union elects to decertify, the league will likely be staring down the barrel of an anti-trust war that will be refereed by a judge – David Doty -- that has repeatedly ruled in favor of the players.

``Judge Doty has had – and I can’t think of any way to say it without overstating it – he has had a remarkable and extraordinary string of always ruling for the union,’’ said Gary Roberts, the dean of the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis and one of the nation’s most respected sports law experts.

``I mean it’s almost inconceivable that an objective, neutral judge would rule, in every single case – case after case after case – for the same side when both sides have plausible arguments.’’

Doty has been the arbiter of disputes between the league and its players since the early ‘90s, when he presided over the antitrust case that brought true free agency to the NFL. Two years ago, after Doty prevented the Atlanta Falcons from recovering $16 million in roster bonus money from Michael Vick, the league tried to have him removed because of bias. But the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the request and upheld Doty’s ruling on Vick.

If the union opts to decertify Friday, it is expected to quickly follow that up by filing another antitrust suit that likely would be assigned to Doty’s courtroom once again. The owners are well aware the players would have a significant home-court advantage if Doty is the presiding judge. Think Pitt v. La Salle.

Roberts suspects that at least as big an issue in the negotiations – maybe even bigger – than reformulating how to split the league’s $9.3 billion in annual revenue – is the matter of Doty’s continued supervision of a new collective bargaining agreement.

``That’s got to be a big issue in the negotiations,’’ he said. ``I can’t imagine the owners would ever agree to a collective bargaining agreement in which Judge Doty continues to supervise the relationship. That’s going to be a real sticking point, because the union is going to want their guy to continue to hear all disputes, which basically means the union wins (those disputes).

``That’s not something that has bubbled up into the public as a big issue yet. But before the ink dries on any agreement, the owners almost certainly are going to insist that Doty be out of the picture moving forward.’’