It's difficult to imagine a fall Sunday without the NFL, but the latest moves in the ongoing labor battle between the league and the union representing the players have put the 2011 season in jeopardy and guaranteed that the issue is more likely to be resolved in court than at the negotiating table.
Late Friday, the NFL Players' Association, the union that represents professional football players in labor negotiations, opted to decertify, or dissolve. That means the players have given up their right to collectively bargain and that this issue will likely drag out in court for months.
The NFLPA will continue as a professional trade association with the mission of "supporting the interests and rights of current and former professional football players."
After the union decertification, 10 NFL players, including New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Payton Manning, were named the plaintiffs in an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL.
In response, the NFL formally informed the NFLPA that it was imposing a lockout of the players, saying the players forced the issue.
"The union's abandonment of bargaining has forced the clubs to take action they very much wanted to avoid," the league's statement read. "The clubs believe that this step is the most effective way to accelerate efforts to reach a new agreement without disruption to the 2011 season."
This all adds up to no spring practice, no free agency deals and possibly no 2011 season.
The NFLPA and NFL are now engaging in a bitter, but not expected, game of finger pointing, with each side claiming they made reasonable and productive offers and concessions in order to reach a deal.
Late last month, the federal mediator that was asked to step in and referee the negotiating sessions issued a gag order, forbidding either side from talking publicly about what went on behind closed doors.
It looks like now that the union has dissolved and the league has gone to a lockout, both sides are airing their dirty laundry -- and revealing what they brought to the bargaining table and what the other side rejected.
"The union left a very good deal on the table," the NFL said in a statement. "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. 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."
The details are complex, but at the heart of the dispute is still the issue of how to divide up the league's $9 billion in annual revenue. This argument has been going on for nearly two years and neither side has budged, a bad omen for any agreement to save the 2011 season.
Under the most recent collective bargaining agreement, the owners set aside $1 billion of the league's revenue for expenses and the players receive about 60 percent of the rest.
The team owners say that's unsustainable, given the economic downturn, and want to take an additional billion for themselves.