Star quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees were among 10 players who sued the NFL in federal court Friday, accusing the league of conspiracy and anticompetitive practices that date back years.
Their lawsuit asked the court to prevent a lockout.
Less than two hours after the players' union decertified, clearing the way for antitrust lawsuits, the players filed their 52-page claim and supporting documents in U.S. District Court. They asked the court for class-action status.
They filed a request for an injunction that would keep the NFL and the teams from engaging in a lockout. Invoking the Sherman Act, a federal antitrust statute from 1890 that limits monopolies and restrictions on commerce, the players said they were entitled to triple the amount of any damages they've incurred.
Which means the stakes could be in the hundreds of millions.
The players accused the 32 NFL teams of conspiring to deny their ability to market their services "through a patently unlawful group boycott and price-fixing arrangement or, in the alternative, a unilaterally imposed set of anticompetitive restrictions on player movement, free agency and competitive market freedom."
The collective bargaining agreement with the league was expiring Friday.
The NFL did not immediately file a response. Commissioner Roger Goodell called on the union to re-open negotiations.
A hearing date hasn't been set.
The legal wrangling took place in a federal courthouse in Minnesota, hundreds of miles from the mediated negotiations in Washington. It's the setting for what could be a long legal fight between owners and players with the 2011 season in jeopardy.
The names on the complaint were striking: Brady, Brees, Manning and a few others, listed in a block of text at the top of the first page. They're plaintiffs, for now, not simply players.
They allege that the NFL conspired to deny the players' ability to market their services in what is a US$9 billion business. They spelled out what they called a long history of NFL antitrust violations, citing as constraints the potential lockout, rookie salary limitations and the franchise and transition player designations.
Comments on the breakdown in NFL labour talks
"It was a deal that offered compromise, and would have ensured the well-being of our players and guaranteed the long-term future for the fans of the great game we all love so much. It was a deal where everyone would prosper."
—NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, on the league's offer to the union in a letter to fans
"I will tell you this. Any business where two partners don't trust each other, any business where one party says you need to do x, y and z because I told you is a business that is not only not run well, it is a business that can never be as successful as it can be."
—DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFLPA, which dissolved late Friday afternoon
"If someone's telling you to give money back and they're not giving you proof that they're losing money, then it's hard to say, 'OK, let's make a deal' on the merits of trust ..."
—Buffalo Bills safety and NFLPA player representative George Wilson
"I don't know who wins. Decertification, I disagree with it. I think there is enough [money] in the game they can split it up and be happy. But evidently they don't feel that way."
—Hall of Famer Mike Ditka
"This is a time for our fans not to be discouraged. ... It has been actually a real learning experience for all of us. In due course, we'll have an agreement."
—Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, co-chairman of the NFL owners' labor committee
—The Associated Press
Teams use those designations to keep key free agents off the open market, but the players also are well compensated when they sign new contracts.
Tom Condon, who represents Manning and Brees, wrote in a statement submitted to the court that a "'lockout' imposed by the NFL threatens to rob Mr. Brees and Mr. Manning, and all other NFL players, of an entire year, or more, of their brief playing careers, which cannot be recaptured."
"This is especially problematic because of the virtually constant need for NFL players to prove their skill and value on the playing field," wrote Condon, one of more than a half-dozen agents who offered statements supporting their clients.
"Missing a year or more of playing in the NFL can cause the skills of NFL players to become rusty from lack of competition, making it difficult for them to regain the full talents they exhibited prior to the absence from play. This could shorten or even end the careers of NFL players."
The players also said —lockout or not —if teams "fail to pay any such required payments to any player, that player's contract shall, at the player's option, be declared null and void."
That's a potentially explosive claim: Players would have the right to get out of their contracts if they don't get a paycheck, even if a settlement is reached.
The NFLPA's general counsel, Richard Berthelsen, said a lockout would cause "irreparable injury" to NFL players even if it's only a few games or simply offseason activities that are wiped out.
"If young players are forced to forego an entire season, they will miss out on a year of the experience and exposure that comes from playing against NFL-level competition and receiving NFL-level coaching, both of which are a must for young players," Berthelsen wrote.
The players want their case in front of U.S. District Judge David Doty, who has overseen NFL labor matters since the early 1990s and has several times ruled in favor of the players.
The case was assigned to U.S. District judge Patrick Schiltz, though it still could end up in front of Doty. The court has designated it as a related case to the Reggie White-led class-action suit that Doty guided toward a 1993 settlement, opening the doors to free agency.
The league has tried in the past to remove Doty from the case, alleging bias toward the players.
Doty issued a ruling last week that backed the NFLPA in a dispute over US$4 billion in TV revenue that players argue was illegally collected by the owners as a war chest to survive a work stoppage.
Also involved in bringing the lawsuit: San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson, Minnesota linebacker Ben Leber and defensive end Brian Robison, New England guard Logan Mankins, New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, Kansas City linebacker Mike Vrabel, and Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller, who is entered in this year's draft.
Manning, Jackson, Leber and Mankins are free agents. The Colts tagged Manning as a franchise player, while the Chargers did the same with Jackson and the Patriots with Mankins. The union is disputing the validity of those tags.