— Kermit Bye, the senior member of a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said very little during Friday's 70-minute hearing on the legality of the NFL lockout.
But what Bye said as proceedings wrapped up before a standing-room-only crowd might resonate for the owners and players.
"We won't be all that hurt if you're leaving us out and should go out and settle the case," Bye said. "We will keep with our business, and if that ends up with a decision, it's probably something both sides aren't going to like, but it will at least be a decision."
In other words, try to get this done on your own. That would make the two days of secret meetings this week in St. Charles, Ill., a starting point for a new labor agreement. Otherwise, it's expected to be weeks before a ruling, which most onlookers believe will support the owners' right to continue the lockout. As Bye said, though, both sides might disapprove of the ruling.
Twenty-one current and former players were on hand, including Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora and Packers defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, projected to be one of the most sought-after free agents. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith was also present, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell did not attend.
The show was between former U.S. solicitor generals Paul Clement, representing the owners, and Theodore Olson, working on behalf of the players. Both had powerful arguments, but it's a business-friendly court, unlike the courts in Minnesota, where the players often have pummeled owners.
The panel already has upheld the lockout twice with Bye the lone dissenter. That means for the players to prevail and have the lockout lifted, they need to sway either Judge William Duane Benton or Judge Steven Colloton.
They were the two doing the most talking Friday. They were more strident toward Olson, who spent most of his time arguing that the decertification of the players union was not a sham aimed at giving players the upper hand in negotiations.
We have "serious, serious doubts the union has disappeared for good," Clement countered. He also argued the players are not being irreparably harmed during the lockout, joking that some veterans have proclaimed this is the best offseason they've had.
"The fastest way to get football back on the field is to get extraneous antitrust law considerations out of this and get back to the bargaining table," Clement said. "That's the real takeaway here. Not only is that the common-sense way to get football back on the field, but it's also the answer that the law has provided."
Olson argued that, legally, the players have done everything proper in renouncing their union status.
"The league desperately wants these players to continue to be in a union so they can continue to violate antitrust laws," he said.
Court-ordered mediation sessions next week have been canceled, likely to create an avenue for more clandestine negotiations like the ones held near Chicago. For camps to start on time next month, something probably needs to be accomplished before July 4.