ST. LOUIS - Attorneys for the NFL and the players' union went before a federal appeals court Tuesday, arguing over whether to reopen the so-called Reggie White case that helped set league labour policy for years amid allegations that team owners set a secret salary cap.
Both sides had 20 minutes in oral arguments before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and both sides left the proceedings feeling optimistic. The word collusion was uttered exactly once.
The hearing was held in the same courtroom where in June 2011 dozen of players showed up in force to urge the appeals court to declare the lockout illegal. The courtroom was packed with about 200 people, so many that folding chairs were brought in to seat some out-of-work and retired players.
This time around, the setting was decidedly low-key. There were no famous faces among the 20 or so attendees, counting at least a half-dozen lawyers for both sides and attorneys awaiting cases later on the morning docket, and no media throng waiting beyond the steps of the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse.
"I think it went well," NFL attorney Gregg Levy said. "The court was well-prepared."
The NFLPA is appealing a ruling by U.S. District Judge David Doty in Minneapolis rejecting the union's attempt to reopen the lawsuit that guided labour matters from 1993 until a collective bargaining agreement was reached in 2011. Among other reasons, union attorney Jeffrey Kessler said, the case should be revisited because the agreement did not cover retired players and others not in the union.
The lawsuit filed in May 2012 claimed the NFL imposed a secret salary cap during the uncapped 2010 season that cost players at least $1 billion. The league denied the allegation, although four teams were punished for overspending and undermining competitive balance, with Dallas and Washington hit with future-cap reductions.
The case landed in appeals court after Doty rejected a claim of collusion in December 2012. Doty had previously sided with players during more than two decades of judging NFL labour matters.
Kessler said players were offended at the "insinuation of gamesmanship" involved in the appeal and said the CBA "has no relevance" in the proceedings.
Levy argued that there was no legal precedent for the appeal, calling it an "extraordinary premise." He noted that all parties involved have prospered since the agreement, reiterated the league's position that the collusion claim was moot and said the lawsuit was beyond the statute of limitations.
At one point during Levy's argument, Riley said he thought the district court ruling was "pretty thin." Levy replied: "It's right on the money."
A decision from the three-judge panel is expected in two or three months.
"We'll get back to you in due course," Chief Judge William Riley of Omaha, Neb., told both parties.
White filed a class-action lawsuit in 1993 seeking more open free agency and a salary cap. The resulting agreement was in place until 2008 when the NFL opted out, saying its costs were too high and that it needed givebacks from players. Before the lawsuit, the NFL had limited free agency known as Plan B, in which teams were allowed to protect 37 players and had the right to match offers for free agents or receive compensation. White died in 2006.