How Minnesota became the center of the NFL labor universe

Judge David Doty
Judge David Doty

U.S. District Court Judge David Doty did it again Tuesday. Once more, he made Minnesota the center of the National Football League’s labor-relations universe.

As the business day ended, the venerable U.S. District Court judge delivered another blockbuster decision on NFL union-management matters. In so doing, he instantly tilted the tick-tick-ticking labor negotiations between the football owners and the NFL Players Association toward the players.

The collective bargaining agreement between the NFL owners and the NFL Players Association is set to expire Thursday. History shows the judge, appointed by Republican Ronald Reagan in 1987, has regularly backed the guys in the shoulder pads and helmets, not the guys who write their checks.  

Last week, in a scuffle that could go a long way in determining who has the most leverage if there is an NFL work stoppage, a dozen lawyers wandered into Doty’s 14th- floor courtroom in the downtown Minneapolis U.S. Courthouse to verbally slug it out.

Key question
The issue: Could the NFL owners collect about $4 billion from the league’s TV network partners even if management proactively locks out the players from the 2011 season?

The charge from the union: The owners purposefully renegotiated those TV deals in recent years to assure themselves of a pre-lockout “war chest,” a stash of cash to cover owner expenses if and when stadiums go dark, along with TV screens in living rooms across America.

The owners’ goal, the union claimed: With that pile of money, the owners could wait out the players, who won’t get paid during any work stoppage.

The players’ assertion: Under the terms of a previous antitrust settlement, overseen by Doty in 1993, the owners have to consider the economic impact of such broadcast renegotiations on the players. And the owners never consulted with the union on the TV deals.

A “special master” — arbitrator — had heard all the evidence on the matter last year and ruled that the owners could, in fact, keep almost all of the 2011 TV dough.

The union appealed the matter to Judge Doty. As a union lawyer said last week in Doty’s court, the owners’ lockout insurance was all about “leverage, leverage, leverage” in the ongoing labor talks.

Tuesday, the former U.S. Marine captain, now a fit, still very sharp 81-year-old jurist, jabbed the owners in their ribs again by overturning the decision of Special Master Stephen Burbank. With 48 hours to go in the collective bargaining agreement contract, he pulled the owners $4 billion magic carpet out from under the owners.

The leverage, leverage, leverage changed.

The history of Minnesota’s NFL legal connection
Why Doty? Why Minneapolis? Why has Minnesota been the center of the NFL labor universe for four decades?  First, it’s all about the Twin Cities law firm Lindquist & Vennum and, then, Doty himself.

In 1969, soon after the National Football League and American Football League merged, the newly combined National Football League Players Association was in its infancy and in search of labor law advice. NFLPA President John Mackey sought a recommendation from noted University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School labor scholar and mediator Nathan Feinsinger.

Feinsinger directed Mackey to Leonard Lindquist, a founding partner at Lindquist & Vennum, and known as one of the nation’s leading labor lawyers.

Soon, one of Lindquist’s partners, Edward Glennon, assumed the role as the NFLPA’s chief litigator, winning a series of cases and grievances that began to lead the players down the path to free agency.

IT just so happened that Feinsinger recommended a young Wisconsin law grad to the Lindquist firm, too. His name was Ed Garvey, and, after some time at Lindquist, Garvey would go on to become the executive director of the NFLPA, and its first vocal champion for player rights.

With an NFL franchise in the district, with the Lindquist firm as legal adviser — away from the New York home turf of the owners — Minneapolis became ground zero for NFL labor matters. Still.

Other judges heard earlier NFL cases before Doty entered the picture. That came in 1988, soon after he was recommended to Reagan by Minnesota Sen. Dave Durenberger. Doty was selected for his first major football case — Marvin Powell v. NFL —  via random selection among all the federal judges in the Minnesota district.

In Powell, Doty, who had been a labor lawyer on the management side during his years with the now-defunct Popham, Haik, Schnobrich, Kaufman & Doty law firm, ruled the league owners had violated antitrust laws.

(By the way, the lawyer for the owners during those days was a Washington, D.C., attorney named Paul Tagliabue, who would go on to become the NFL commissioner.)

Later, in the most important NFL labor case ever — Reggie White v. NFL — Doty forged a settlement that strengthened players’ free agency rights and allowed for the creation of a league-wide salary cap … all the while boosting the economic vitality and popularity of the NFL. That so-called “White settlement” was formalized by a consent decree by Doty, and, with it, the judge retained jurisdiction over all labor matters for as long as the White settlement is in place.

It is, in fact, still in place. That’s why Doty, who was once a Gophers football player (for a few weeks), still oversees all these NFL disputes. That’s why some lawyers suspect this ongoing collective bargaining battle could also wind up back in Doty’s court. The NFLPA likes the judge. And why shouldn’t it?

Doty’s reflections
Three years ago, on the 20th anniversary of his Powell ruling, I interviewed Judge Doty for a profile for Sports Business Journal, the national trade publication. Then, he told me: “[NFL owners] pretend they’re getting beaten around. Well, they did, initially, but they had a position that was not legally sound … I think if you ask Tagliabue, he would say, ‘The whole thing has come out our way.’ Because, even though they complain about it … all they’ve done is make tons of money.”

That and a few other earlier interviews he conducted got him into hot water with the league, which attempted to remove him from all NFL cases. The league also charged that Doty was too cozy with Gene Upshaw, the longtime, now late, leader of the players’ union.

Doty stood fast, his comrade judges didn’t remove him, and there he sat last Thursday listening to this most recent TV lockout-war chest case. He listened intently. He played folksy and avuncular with the lawyers. He gave everyone their chance to speak fully.

NFL owners lawyer Gregg Levy warned Doty that the union “wants this court to put its thumb on the scales of the collective bargaining process.”

Doty said he understood that his ruling on the TV-lockout-money matter could “weigh very heavily on the parties.”

Then, Tuesday Judge Doty pulled out that learned thumb of his, and placed it squarely on that scale, just days before the future of the NFL’s 2011 season and economic structure will be determined … right here in little ol’ Minneapolis, the proud center of football’s labor universe.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Derek Grayson on 03/02/2011 - 10:56 am.

    @Jay Weiner,

    Great story and great writing. I and I’m sure many other folks were wondering how Minnesota and Doty ended up getting this NFL TV revenues case. Thnx 4 answering that question. I like Doty; he’s trying to make a level playing field and his decision goes a long way to that end.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/02/2011 - 11:56 am.

    It is a great story, of great relevance. Thanks Jay.

    “”NFL owners lawyer Gregg Levy warned Doty that the union “wants this court to put its thumb on the scales of the collective bargaining process.””

    As opposed to the owners who want to take a sledge hammer to the process.

  3. Submitted by Dick Novack on 03/02/2011 - 04:06 pm.

    Fantastic background piece.

    I can only conjecture that Judge Doty is having the time of his life watching and deciding which of the arrogant self-important parties gets to be the greediest self-important party.

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