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NFLPA Officially Decertifies; Labor Battle Headed Toward Litigation

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The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) has filed decertification paperwork. Over two weeks' worth of mediated negotiations failed to produce a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the two sides, fueled by a lack of trust from both camps. With the union no longer a union, the next steps will almost certainly be a lockout of NFL players by its owners, and the former union (now a trade association) seeking injunctive relief from US District Judge David S. Doty. NFL football may be played in 2011, but that'll be up to the litigation process. It will be ugly, and could be a protracted affair. But NFL football is not yet dead this year - that is important to remember right now.

The move caps a frantic day of news out of our nation's capital.

For a long time Friday, all was quiet at the FMCS building in Washington, D.C. Most observers noted that the lack of news was a sign of progress. News broke in the morning that the league's owners had come up with one final offer to the union, as presented by commissioner Roger Goodell, with revisions to several of this saga's key negotiating points. Reporters on the scene began to get antsy at 2PM, when union head DeMaurice Smith was scheduled to hold a conference call with NFL players to update them on the status of negotiations. Word soon emerged that the call was, in fact, taking place.

Soon thereafter, just short of 3PM ET - two hours before the union's decertification deadline - ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the union's plan, as conveyed to players via conference call by Smith, was set to decertify. (At least one player tried to refute this report.) Immediately, cautious optimism bred by the morning's inactivity was erased, while others insisted that this was a last negotiation tactic by Smith; those people alleged that Smith knew the information would leak, and was using it to pressure further concessions out of the owners.

We know what the union had been after for two years: audited financial data on a team-by-team basis that would allegedly serve as justification for the owners seeking additional money out of the $9 billion revenue pie. By day's end, that's exactly what Smith would ask for. Publicly. Taking this battle to court has long been a union strategy, as opposed to an owner strategy, and the league had long suspected that the union believed it could get that data from the litigation process should the league not voluntarily provide it. It appears they were correct.

At about 3:30, Yahoo!'s Mike Silver tweeted that, per a league source, the owners had offered to split the remaining differences in the negotiation on Friday morning, that the union hadn't made a counter offer, and that the situation was headed to court. This, mind you, was still 90 minutes in advance of the CBA deadline. It was immediately (and quite accurately) pointed out by Silver that the fact that the union hadn't countered - a sign that they may not have been negotiating in good faith - was offset by the owners dragging their heels for so long.

Just short of 4:00, Daniel Kaplan of Sports Business Daily tweeted, citing a source "in the room," that the union was leaving the negotiating table and preparing to take the battle to court. At 4:00 on the dot, Schefter tweeted that the owners and the union were meeting face-to-face as a "last gasp" attempt at labor peace. Kaplan confirmed. Less than five minutes later, NFL Network had confirmed that the union had dissolved - and less than 120 seconds after that, they announced that the union had delayed that decision - and that the union was convinced to do so by the owners. Collectively, across the Internet, it was perhaps the most genuine "WTF" moment I have ever experienced.

Roughly a half-hour later, Schefter informed the public that the owners were now meeting amongst themselves, purportedly to discuss next steps. At 4:40, 20 minutes before the deadline, an NFL spokesman informed assembled media that Smith was on his way down to address them "in five minutes." At that juncture, Smith announced that significant differences remained between the two sides, and that absent an agreement to share a decade's worth of audited financials by 5PM, the union would decertify. He also said at that time that the union was awaiting a decision on that front from the owners, and that another extension on the negotiations would be granted if the NFL agreed to the union's demands.

5:00 came. 5:00 went. At 5:05, ESPN's Chris Mortensen and several other outlets confirmed that the NFLPA had officially decertified.

So here we are. The NFLPA is now nothing more than a trade association. Whether or not NFL football is played in 2011 is now in the hands of Judge Doty and the US court system; Peter King explained that process Thursday night. While that goes on, the league and the players won't be able to negotiate towards a new CBA - so even if the 2011 league year begins after the court process is complete, it will be running on a system both sides admit is broken. Distrust between the two sides will be at an all-time high on a personal level, even if the courts finally give the players the financial data they've been seeking for two years. From here, a deal looks like a fairy tale.

Buckle up. This might be a long summer - one with lockouts, anti-trust lawsuits, and appeals. Just what every football fan tunes in for.