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Players Hope To Score A Touchdown In Brady v. NFL

Posted  March 22, 2011

Packers v. Steelers may have been the official “Big Game” this year, but Brady v. NFL is turning out to be the real contest to watch.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and eight of his fellow professional football stars (plus a potential one) kicked off the game on March 11, 2011, by suing the National Football League and its 32 member teams under the federal antitrust laws.

The NFL sought to block the players’ drive yesterday by filing a brief opposing their request for an injunction ending the owners’ “lockout” of the players and their restraints on the players’ earning ability.

The case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota (No. 11-cv-639), follows months of unsuccessful negotiation between the players’ union (the NFLPA) and the NFL to reach a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA).  The old CBA expired the day the complaint was filed.

Plaintiffs include superstars Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, and Osi Umenyiora of the New York Giants.  They also include Texas A&M’s Von Miller, “one of the top defensive players available in the 2011 NFL draft.”  The players filed their class action complaint on behalf of all “current and future professional football players who are employed by or seeking employment by an NFL club.”

The players allege that the NFL and its teams have illegally conspired to prevent them from “provid[ing] and/or market[ing] their services in the major league market for professional football players” through four main “anticompetitive restrictions.”

First and foremost of these restrictions is the “lockout,” described in the complaint as “threatened” but which was implemented a few hours after filing.  As its name indicates, the lockout allegedly prevents any contact between NFL teams and players – thus it prevents any negotiation of new employment contracts, any work or payment under current contracts, and any access to team facilities or personnel.

The other challenged restrictions include (a) the salary cap; (b) the “entering player pool” of the college draft, which is an alleged limit on the total salary that all teams collectively can pay to sign drafted rookies; and (c) the “Franchise Player” and “Transition Player” designations, which allegedly “prohibit” or “severely limit” free agents “from receiving a contract from any NFL team other than [his] immediately prior team.”

The players allege that these restrictions violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act under both the per se and rule of reason standards.  They also assert claims of breach of contract and tortious interference with contract for those players under contract for the 2011 season.  They demand treble damages, which they hope will give them significant leverage over the defendants.  They also seek declarations that the defendants’ conduct is illegal, and permanent injunctions against the conduct.

The complaint chronicles the NFL’s alleged “long history of violating federal antitrust law” and resulting “multiple antitrust lawsuits” by players.

One of the most significant of these lawsuits was White v. NFL, also litigated in the District of Minnesota.  That case settled in 1993 with an agreement that, according to the complaint, waived the NFL’s non-statutory labor exemption defense to the players’ claims.  That defense essentially says that employees who have a collective bargaining relationship with their employer – such as the NFL players – cannot sue their employer under the antitrust laws.  The players assert that the defense is moot because – as Constantine Cannon’s David Scupp predicted in January – the players dissolved, or “decertified,” the NFLPA on the very same day they filed the complaint, ending their collective bargaining relationship with the NFL.  Under the White v. NFL settlement and governing case law, the players claim, they are therefore untouched by the labor exemption defense.

In a brief filed yesterday, however, the NFL argues that the labor exemption still applies – and an injunction is not warranted – because the case grows out of a labor dispute and the challenged conduct is not sufficiently distant from the collective bargaining process.

Concurrently with the complaint, the players moved for a preliminary injunction to stop the lockout immediately.  They claim that such extraordinary relief is necessary to save the 2011 NFL season.  That motion is scheduled to be heard (and could be decided) April 6 by Judge Susan Richard Nelson.  If Judge Nelson grants the injunction, the players will gain a significant advantage, as she will have found their case likely to succeed on the merits.  If it is denied, the lockout will continue, but both sides will be pressed to reach an agreement to avoid the dire financial consequences of a continued lockout.

Much could change in the meantime.  Indeed, much has already changed: In its first four days, the case was in the hands of three different judges (none of whom was Judge Doty, who is widely perceived as “pro-player”), finally landing with Judge Nelson.  And it could always settle.  Whatever happens, the 2011 season is already shaping up to be one for the books.

Tagged in: Antitrust Litigation,