It isn't a big surprise that the NFL has been planning for a lockout for months and months. Everybody has reported on it. Most people expect it to happen, probably soon after the collective bargaining agreement expires at 11:59 pm on March 3.
Still, it really hits you when you see the strategy referred to in court documents. But it's all right there. The union is arguing before Federal judge David Doty in Minneapolis about whether or not the NFL should have been allowed to negotiate television contracts that require payment in 2011 even if there is a lockout. It is obvious what that kind of financial windfall would do for the owners, how it would insulate them from the pressure to pay the mortgage on stadiums and such as the players did without their salaries.
Doty -- who has overseen the NFL CBA since it was crafted two decades ago as a result of an antitrust lawsuit, and who is seen as biased in favor of the union by NFL owners -- put off a ruling on the issue on Thursday. (More on that below.) But he did order the unsealing of documents in the case, though they have been redacted (to remove a lot of financial information and such).
And those documents reveal what we knew all along: that the lockout has been strategized about at the highest levels of the league for months and years.
In its motion, the union quotes from NFL documents in a bunch of places where a lockout is discussed or suggested. Here are two instances:
In October 2008, they stated that "Key Considerations Related to NFL Labor Situation" included the "NFL's ability to use media revenues to fund work stoppage".
In February 2009, before a joint meeting of the league's labor, broadcast and finance committees, "The specific goals under consideration relating to the timing for key decisions include" - "Securing revenue streams that will provide the necessary financial flexibility to remain committed to the right long-term labor agreement."
It goes on and on from there. This lockout has been the NFL's fixation for years.
Now, I am not going to pretend to know what Doty is going to decide here. Some believe that he has thrown the NFL a bone by putting off his decision, the notion being that he wouldn't want to interfere with ongoing labor negotiations. But if the NFL traded 2011 revenue guarantees from its TV partners in exchange for lower right fees overall, that might be a violation of the collective bargaining agreement. If you violate the agreement as a labor strategy, how could the judge not step in?
Again, that's why he is the judge. But his short-term decision not to decide is not necessarily great news for the owners. If this TV money is a key part of the lockout strategy, and there is a chance it won't be there, how do you begin the lockout if you are the NFL? If Doty were to rule against the owners now, there are other strategies they might employ. But what if they were to begin a lockout and then have Doty decide against them in the middle of it? What do they do then? How do they pay their mortgages?
If you are interested in this stuff -- and most people aren't -- the peek into the inner workings of the NFL is revealing, and chilling. Compromise has not been at the forefront of their thinking, it seems. A lockout, the nuclear option, has been a key point of discussion forever.