A look at the latest NFL labor skirmish

The latest skirmish over pro football’s labor situation involved billions of dollars of league television money, a sealed ruling from a UPenn law professor and claims of victory by both the NFL the players’ union.

None of which might directly concern fans, but here’s the big picture on yesterday’s development: the NFL is, for now, assured of getting $4 billion in television money even if there is a lock out and regular season games are missed.

If you buy the NFLPA's arguments, this means the owner have a big measure of protection in the event of a lock out, and makes it easier for them, financially, to dig in on a labor deal.

The NFL disputes the argument that the money is “lockout insurance.” League officials recently said that even if they get the TV money, they might owe rebates, interest or have to extend the contracts. Still, on the face of things it seems that the cash flow would be a major boon to owners – why else would the NFL have negotiated the guarantees into their television contracts?

The situation sets up a contrast that favors ownership: they can still collect at least one big piece of their revenues even if a lock out drags into the season, while players will start losing game checks if a deal isn’t done by the time September rolls around.

Both sides, though, claimed victory. The NFLPA challenged the league’s TV deal, essentially arguing that in securing promised TV paydays, the league failed to maximize revenue for other seasons – revenue that would have been shared by the NFL and the players.

The hearings were not public, but the Associated Press and New York Times both reported that the union was awarded $6.9 million in damages after asking for $60 million. Stephen Burbank, a Penn law professor who serves as special master overseeing league and union labor issues, found that that NFL had violated an antitrust deal in negotiating “lockout insurance in its contracts with ESPN and NBC," the NFLPA said in a statement.

The union plans to appeal the decision.

But the league pointed out that the union ultimately got a fraction of what they sought.

“The special master squarely rejected the union’s demand that the NFL be denied access to payments that the league’s television partners are obligated to make for the 2011 season,” the league said in a statement.

The NFL also said, “if the union commits to invest as much time, energy and other resources in negotiation as it has in its litigation strategy, a new agreement could well be reached by March 4.”

Expect much more on the labor front in the next few days leading up to the Super Bowl.

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