Unable to decide how to divvy up $9 billion a year, NFL owners and players put the country's most popular sport in limbo Friday by breaking off labor negotiations hours before their contract expired.
The union decertified, and 10 players, including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, sued the owners in federal court, putting the NFL on a path to its first work stoppage since 1987.
"We are locked out," union president and former player Kevin Mawae said in a text message to The Associated Press. "We were informed today that players are no longer welcome at team facilities."
Despite two extensions to the collective bargaining agreement during 16 days of talks overseen by a federal mediator -- and previous months of stop-and-start negotiating -- the sides could not agree on a new deal. The league said it hadn't decided as of Friday evening whether to lock out the players, who, meanwhile, went to court to request an injunction to block such a move.
"The parties have not achieved an overall agreement, nor have they been able to resolve the strongly held competing positions that separated them on core issues," mediator George Cohen said. "No useful purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue the mediation process at this time."
By dissolving and announcing it no longer represents the players in collective bargaining, the union cleared the way for class-action lawsuits against the NFL, which opted out of the CBA in 2008. The antitrust suit -- forever to be known as Brady et al vs. National Football League et al -- attacked the league's policies on the draft, salary cap and free-agent restrictions such as franchise-player tags.
Invoking the Sherman Act, a federal antitrust statute from 1890 that limits monopolies and restrictions on commerce, the players are seeking triple the amount of damages they've incurred. That means the stakes here could be in the hundreds of millions.
It could take a month for there to be a ruling on the union's injunction request, and antitrust judgments should take longer.
The court fights eventually could threaten the 2011 season for a league whose past two Super Bowls rank as the two most-watched programs in U.S. television history. The last time NFL games were lost to a work stoppage came when the players struck 24 years ago, leading to games with replacement players.
The CBA originally was due to expire last week, then was extended twice, in hopes that the sides could find common ground on the key issues: how to divide more than $9 billion in annual revenues, and how much financial information the league would be willing to turn over.
In the end, it appeared the sides were about $185 million per year apart on how much money owners would get up front during the new collective bargaining agreement -- well down from the $1 billion that separated them for so long. The union refused to budge any further without getting detailed financial information for each team.
"I would dare any one of you to pull out any economic indicator that would suggest that the National Football League is falling on hard times," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said. "The last 14 days, the National Football League has said, 'Trust us.' But when it came time for verification, they told us it was none of our business."
It all set the stage for a lengthy court fight that eventually could threaten the 2011 season. The last work stoppage came when the players struck 24 years ago, leading to games with replacement players.
"We remain committed to collective bargaining and the federal mediation process until an agreement is reached, and call on the union to return to negotiations immediately," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a letter to fans posted on NFL.com Friday evening. "NFL players, clubs, and fans want an agreement. The only place it can be reached is at the bargaining table."
Even though the NFL is early in its offseason -- and the regular season is six months away -- this is hardly a complete down time. Free agency usually begins in March, and there are hundreds of free agents now in limbo. Also this month, under a regular schedule, offseason workouts would start, and the owners meet to establish rules changes.
Plus, March and early April are when many sponsors and corporate partners renew their deals with the NFL, part of why the league says hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue are going to be lost now.
"This obviously is a very disappointing day for all of us. I've been here for the better part of two weeks now, and essentially ... the union's position on the core economic issues has not changed one iota," New York Giants owner John Mara said. "One thing that became painfully apparent to me during this period was that their objective was to go the litigation route."
Just after the players' union decertified, Brady, Manning, Drew Brees and seven other players filed suit against the NFL in U.S. District Court, seeking class-action status. They also filed a request for an injunction that would keep the NFL and the teams from engaging in a lockout.
The players allege in the lawsuit that the organizations conspired to deny the players' 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 expires at the end of Friday.
The case was assigned Friday afternoon to U.S. District judge Patrick Schiltz, not his colleague David Doty, who has overseen NFL labor matters since the early 1990s and has several times ruled in favor of the players. The lawsuit still could end up in front of Doty. New cases are randomly assigned to judges when they're filed, but they are sometimes reassigned to others on the bench with expertise in a certain issue.
Doty, who helped engineer the initial agreement between owners and players that opened the doors to free agency, issued a ruling last week that backed the NFLPA in a dispute over $4 billion in TV revenue that players argue was illegally collected by the owners as a war chest to survive a work stoppage.
The league has tried in the past to remove Doty from the case, alleging bias toward the players.
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.
The NFLPA also decertified in 1989. Antitrust lawsuits by players led to a new CBA in 1993 that included free agency, and the union formed again that year.
"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," Smith said.
At 4:45 p.m., Smith and the union's negotiators left. About 15 minutes later, the union decertified.
"No one is happy where we are now," NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said. "I think we know where the commitment was. It was a commitment to litigate all along."
A league statement added: "The union left a very good deal on the table."
The public acrimony that arose Thursday night seeped into Friday.
After Pash spoke, outside union lawyer Jim Quinn said: "I hate to say this, but he has not told the truth to our players or our fans. He has, in a word, lied to them about what happened today and what's happened over the last two weeks and the last two years."
The NFL said its offer included splitting the difference in the dispute over how much money owners should be given off the top of the league's revenues. Under the expiring CBA, the owners immediately got about $1 billion before dividing the remainder with the players; the owners originally were asking to roughly double that by getting an additional $1 billion up front.
The NFL released the rest of what it described as a summary of its proposal to the union:
• An entry-level compensation system based on the union's "rookie cap" proposal, rather than the wage scale proposed by the clubs. Under the NFL proposal, players drafted in rounds 2-7 would be paid the same or more than they are paid today. Savings from the first round would be reallocated to veteran players and benefits.
• A guarantee of up to $1 million of a player's salary for the contract year after his injury the first time that the clubs have offered a standard multiyear injury guarantee.
• Immediate implementation of changes to promote player health and safety by: reducing the offseason program by five weeks, reducing OTAs (organized team activities) from 14 to 10 and limiting on-field practice time and contact; limiting full-contact practices in the preseason and regular season; and increasing number of days off for players.
• Commit that any change to an 18-game season will be made only by agreement and that the 2011 and 2012 seasons will be played under the current 16-game format.
• Financial disclosure of audited league and club profitability information that is not even shared with the NFL clubs. That was proposed by the NFL this week, and rejected by the union, which began insisting in May 2009 for a complete look at the books of all 32 clubs.
• Owner funding of $82 million in 2011-12 to support additional benefits to former players, which would increase retirement benefits for more than 2,000 former players by nearly 60 percent.
• Offer current players the opportunity to remain in the player medical plan for life.
• Third-party arbitration for appeals in the drug and steroid programs.
• Improvements in the Mackey plan (designed for players suffering from dementia and other brain-related problems), disability plan and degree-completion bonus program.
• A per-club cash minimum spend of 90 percent of the salary cap over three seasons.
The players' union immediately shut down its websites, NFLPA.org and NFLPlayers.com. A search for NFLPA.org yielded this message: "Error 404: Football Not Found. Please be patient as we work on resolving this. We are sorry for the inconvenience."
When Goodell, Pash, and owners Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, Jerry Richardson of the Panthers and John Mara of the Giants emerged from Cohen's office shortly after 5 p.m., they sounded hopeful that negotiations would soon resume.
"We are prepared to come back here any time the union is ready to come back here," Pash said.