WASHINGTON --( ESPN.COM ) All along, the NFL said it was certain the players' union would decertify and head to court.
All along, the union insisted the league's owners were planning to lock out the players.
And that's exactly what happened.
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 collective bargaining agreement expired.
The union decertified, and 10 players, including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, sued the owners in federal court in Minneapolis.
Then, at midnight, the owners locked out the players -- creating the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 and putting the 2011 season in jeopardy.
Despite two extensions to the CBA during 16 days of talks overseen by a federal mediator -- following months of stop-and-start negotiating -- the sides could not agree on a new deal. Now they will be adversaries in court: The players already requested an injunction to block a lockout, even before one was in place.
The NFL released a lengthy, detailed statement Saturday morning.
"At a time when thousands of employees are fighting for their collective bargaining rights, this union has chosen to abandon collective bargaining in favor of a sham 'decertification' and antitrust litigation," the statement read. "This litigation maneuver is built on the indisputably false premise that the NFLPA has stopped being a union and will merely delay the process of reaching an agreement."
In the end, it appeared the sides were about $185 million apart on how much owners should get up-front each season for certain operating expenses before splitting the rest of the revenues with players -- a far cry from the $1 billion that separated the sides for months.
But the NFL Players Association 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."
By dissolving and announcing it no longer represents the players in collective bargaining, the union cleared the way for class-action lawsuits against the NFL, which exercised a CBA opt-out clause in 2008.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 could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
It could take a month for a ruling on the union's injunction request, and antitrust judgments should take longer.
Depending on what happens in court -- a Minnesota judge has held jurisdiction over NFL labor matters since the early 1990s -- the 2011 season could be threatened. 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.
A lockout is a right management has to shut down a business when a CBA expires. It means there can be no communication between the teams and current NFL players; no players -- including those drafted in April -- can be signed; teams won't pay health insurance for players.
Even though the NFL is early in its offseason -- and the regular season is six months away -- this is hardly a complete downtime. Free agency usually begins in March, and there are hundreds of free agents now in limbo. Also this month, under a regular schedule, team-organized offseason workouts would start. The lockout grinds all such activity to a halt.
Here is the ESPN.com story from Friday:
Washington (ESPN.com) The NFL Players Association has filed papers to decertify, effectively disbanding the union and giving it the chance to sue under antitrust laws if there is a lockout.
"The NFLPA will move forward as a professional trade association with the mission of supporting the interests and rights of current and former professional football players," the group said Friday in a statement.
The move follows a 16th day of federally mediated negotiations in which the union, presented with a proposal from the league's owners group late Friday afternoon as a 5 p.m. decertification deadline approached, rejected the offer as "significant differences continue to remain," union chief DeMaurice Smith said.
Eyewitness Sports director Jeff Russo has the latest on Channel 7 and in the SPORTS section of wkbw.com, including letters from both sides.
Link to the full story and complete coverage from ESPN.com at "News Links" at wkbw.com