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NFL lockout: If Friday’s deadline passes, is the 2011 season doomed?

The good news, of course, is that the National Football League has not locked out its players this morning.

The good news, of course, is that the National Football League has not locked out its players this morning. Both the owners and the players agreed Thursday to give themselves an extra 24 hours to see if they can resolve their differences.

The bad news, perhaps, is that the new deadline of midnight Friday is, in some ways, not much of a deadline at all. If a lockout arrives this weekend, free agency would be frozen and spring practices eventually canceled, but the pressure for a deal will remain relatively low until the threat of losing games becomes imminent in the fall.

Indeed, reports suggest that some owners wouldn’t expect any serious negations until September, when the regular season is scheduled to start.

Yet a lockout, if it happens, hardly guarantees lost games. Almost immediately, it would set off a chain of legal challenges that could change the shape of the impasse and bring the parties to the table sooner. Moreover, the passage of time – and particularly the growing threat losing of games – could stoke anger to an unprecedented pitch as fans wonder why the richest and most popular league in American sports can’t make things work.

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“Any deadlines missed simply lead to the triggering of new timelines, new points of leverage, and not only draw more clarity to the differences [between the two sides], but also begin to uncover fan disgust and sponsor and broadcast unrest,” says David Carter, director of the University of Southern California Sports Business Institute in Los Angeles.

“As it goes forward, this potential labor impasse is going to play out more publicly than any we’ve ever seen in sports, partly because of the deep finances and avid fans football has, but [also] because so few people can really understand why a business as successful this finds itself on the brink of a work stoppage,” says Mr. Carter.

Why would the union decertify?

If the doors are bolted, the scene will almost certainly shift to the courtroom. The NFL Players Association has long planned to decertify as a union when it becomes clear that no deal can be struck. The reason: Under the law, players have more legal tools to take on owners as individuals than they do as a union.

Specifically, players can take two actions against the owners if they decertify:

They can file an antitrust lawsuit against the owners.

They can ask for an injunction against the lockout, forcing the owners to hold a football season.

The idea is that these lawsuits – and the specter that a judge could rule in favor of the players – would give the players more leverage to get a better deal. Otherwise, the owners would hold virtually all the cards and the union would have little ability to budge them from their demands.

In that way, the lockout and the lawsuits expected to accompany it would merely mark a new phase of negotiation, says Michael LeRoy, a sports labor expert at University of Illinois. Traditional, face-to-face negotiations will have failed and the party seen as being in the more difficult position – the players – are merely seeking new ways to change the dynamic.

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Speaking generally and not of this case, the “Supreme Court says impasse is not the end of bargaining, [but is] a device to advance the relationship,” says Mr. LeRoy. “That’s what’s going on – a way of redefining the relationship. It appears at the moment to be perilous and fraught with a doomsday atmosphere, but the big picture is, it’s about altering the relationship.”

Owners stuck in

The owners are determined to alter the relationship. Of the NFL’s $9 billion in revenues, the owners get $1 billion to “grow the game” and the remaining pot is split between the players (57 percent) and the owners (43 percent). The owners want another billion dollars taken out of the pot they split with the players.

They’ve offered to expand the regular season from 16 to 18 games – growing overall revenue so that players notice no hit to their paychecks. Players complain of an increased risk of injury and the prospect of doing more work for the same money. Owners also want a rookie wage scale, among other concessions.

In some respects, the owners are well positioned to stay firm until the players buckle. Anticipating a lockout, the owners negotiated TV deals that ensured that they will be paid $4 billion even if no games are played.

Yet the players are also challenging that agreement. If a federal judge rules in their favor and issues an injunction against the owners receiving that money, the decision could change the entire course of the lockout.

Any of the legal maneuverings could yield a deal. A similar antitrust lawsuit by the players in 1993 led to a new labor agreement. Short of that, public pressure will continue to mount until games begin to fall off the calendar.

“If history is the guide, the real crunch time is the start of the season and about five or six weeks in,” says LeRoy. “That’s when it’s fish or cut bait for having a season.”