The big gun in the arsenal that used to be the NFLPA (before they decertified on Friday) was that the NFL and it's 32 teams violate the United States antitrust laws and was a monopoly.
The league, in order to defend itself, argues that each of the 32 teams are separate businesses that operate under a governing body—i.e. a cartel.
In fact, the NFL has rules set up within itself that are similar to the United States antitrust laws.
For instance, the US does not allow price fixing amongst competitors.
Price fixing is where competing businesses get together and determine what they will charge for their goods instead of allowing the free market determine the price. Sugar and corn companies have been nailed for these activities in the past.
The NFL mimics this in two ways.
First, the league does not tell any of the teams how to set their price for their tickets or anything sold within their stadiums.
Dan Snyder, for example (the owner of the Washington Redskins) can charge as little or as much as he wants for parking, tickets, refreshments and souvenirs. The NFL has no say in that.
Second, the NFL does not allow teams to get together and determine a roof salary for a particular player or position.
The NFL allows for the open market (free agency) to determine a player's worth. Once again, it was Dan Snyder who decided that Albert Haynesworth was worth 100 million dollars when the Redskins signed him two years ago, not the NFL. 31 other owners thought he was crazy.
This anti-collusion rule by the league is similar to another part of the antitrust law which prohibits bid rigging.
Bid rigging, basically, is when a group of people involved in a bidding war agree on who will win or what the ceiling for the bidding will be.
What's more, when the NFL and AFL merged in the late 60s, they were granted an exemption by the US Supreme Court as long as they didn't compete against high school and college football (which is why there are no Friday or Saturday games until after college season is over).
In 2010, in a ruling in the American Needle Inc. v. NFL case, the Supreme Court ruled the NFL was a cartel of 32 independent businesses.
The court, therefore, has ruled twice on this, and on both occasions refuted the suggestion that the NFL is a monopoly.
Some still may not be convinced by this.
Let me play devil's advocate for a moment.
Let's assume that the former NFLPA is right.
Let's say the NFL and all 32 teams are one business and not 32 individuals working together.
The league still isn't a monopoly.
There are other leagues out there.
For instance, there is the United Football League (UFL) and Arena Football League (AFL).
Granted, these leagues are not as profitable as the NFL but that's not because of some mythical monopoly the NFL has on professional football—that's because of us, the fans, and the the age of the league.
The NFL does nothing to prevent people from watching these other two leagues, nor does it do anything to prevent players from playing in these leagues.
The NFL pretty much ignores these leagues, much like it ignored the original AFL until it started making headway into the NFL's profits.
So, while the NFL players are busy filing suits against the league claiming antitrust violations, nothing is stopping them from taking a pay cut to go and play in these other leagues.
Honestly, if the players really wanted to stick it to the NFL, they should take their services elsewhere.
They might not get paid as much at first, but if approximately 1,700 NFL players took their services elsewhere (say, the UFL), then that product would certainly become superior to what it is now and more money would begin going into that league.
Eventually, their salaries would increase.
There is nothing stopping them from doing this except for their own greed.
You might say, "Well, what about their contracts?"
Well, those contracts are only valid within the cartel known as the NFL. They prevent another NFL team from signing them, not another league or business.
The individual player could retire from the NFL and only end up owing the money that is already laid out in their contract for them to return in the event of early retirement (like the dispute between Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions after he retired).
In closing, this whole lock-out is a complete mess.
Both sides have valid points and both sides are wrong on some other points. There is plenty of middle ground for them to agree on but they won't. Call it pride, call it greed, but the two sides won't give an inch to each other and we, the fans, are sadly the ones who lose out.