MINNEAPOLIS - The NFL hasn't wavered in this message to its locked-out players: Get out of the courts and come back to the bargaining table.
Reiterating that mantra, lawyers for the league issued written arguments Thursday that a recent legal response by players does not dispel "serious doubts'' previously expressed by an appeals court about a federal judge's order that the lockout end immediately.
Repeatedly during this dragged-out, employer-employee dispute over the future of this lucrative, ever-popular professional sport, the NFL has insisted the only path to a new agreement is through face-to-face talks.
In the league's reply brief, which again urged the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Minnesota-based U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson's April 25 decision to lift the lockout, it claimed anew Thursday that the NFL Players Association shed union status only as a tactic to gain leverage through an antitrust lawsuit filed in Nelson's court.
"No student of the history of this industry - and no one familiar with the NFLPA leadership's very recent statements of purpose and intent - believes that the Union is gone, let alone gone forever,'' attorneys for the NFL wrote.
The appeals court put a stay May 16 on Nelson's ruling, when it expressed those "serious doubts'' about the legality of Nelson's ruling. That stay kept the work stoppage in place until the process is complete, and will hear oral arguments from each side in St. Louis on June 3.
The NFL also asked the appeals court Thursday to "make clear that the solution'' to this impasse "lies with the labor laws and not in the antitrust courts.''
Last Friday, just minutes before the midnight deadline, lawyers for the players filed their response to the league's original appeal. In that document, the players described the NFL as a "cartel'' that has skirted antitrust laws and damaged their careers with this work stoppage that has lasted more than two months.
In Thursday's rebuttal of those arguments, the league repeated its belief that Nelson's lockout-lifting injunction was illegal because of legislation prohibiting the courts from intervening in labor disputes.
The NFL wrote a meticulous, emphatic reply - the last written argument before the live hearing next week - to the appeals court that attempted to debunk each legal claim made by the players. The document was a virtual study in labor law history, with dozens of references of past cases to support the league's stance.
The NFL called the last brief filed by the players a "straw man'' attack that made blanket suggestions and ignored important pieces of legislation.
The league filed previously an unfair labor charge against the players with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming they didn't negotiate in good faith. That charge is still pending, and the NFL has continually argued Nelson can't chime in before a ruling from the NLRB.
Lawyers for the players have expressed doubts that the NLRB will issue a complaint, but the NFL wrote Thursday: "Speculation and wishful thinking are no substitute for agency expertise.''
So the game within the game continues.
"The frustration that I have and I am sure the fans have is that the uncertainty continues,'' NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Thursday in a conference call with Tennessee Titans season-ticket holders. "The courts aren't going to resolve our differences. We need to resolve them at the table.''
The next round of court-ordered mediation is scheduled for June 7 in Minnesota.