MINNEAPOLIS — The man in the middle of the bitter labor dispute between NFL owners and players is rarely happier these days than when he is carefully sliding a 40-pound rock down a 150-foot sheet of ice toward a painted target, with sweepers furiously brushing the path and steering the stone toward the middle.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur J. Boylan was introduced to curling a few years ago, and can be found at one of two curling clubs in St. Paul three nights a week.
Somehow it makes sense that one of most respected mediators in the country has become enamored with a sport that demands quiet concentration and a delicate touch to keep the game from spinning out of control. But Boylan’s son said it is the social nature of curling that appeals to the judge, even more than the strategy and patience required of something nicknamed “chess on ice.”
“The actual game is precise,” Art G. Boylan said. “But I think it’s the very collegial atmosphere that he really likes. During the games everyone on both teams is spending time together. He just enjoys it.”
Critical thinking and an ability to relate to others also plays a big role in the courtroom for Boylan, who is no doubt having those skills tested as he tries to diffuse the tension in the NFL lockout, now more than 100 days long.
Boylan is the court-appointed official who for the past two months has been working with billionaire owners and millionaire players on a new collective bargaining agreement in hopes of getting the most popular sport in the country back on the field without missing any games.
“He won’t do it by cracking heads, but he has enormous staying power and enormous patience,” said Charles “Bucky” Zimmerman, partner at the local law firm Zimmerman Reed. “He has a way to get it to the end. He’s tenacious in the sense that he knows what the end game is and if he has any opportunity to find it, he’ll find it.”
Armed with an even temper and a truckload of poise, Boylan has been a part of some high-profile mediations since he was appointed a magistrate judge in 1996. He mediated a $270-million settlement reached in a fraud case against a Minneapolis securities company and a $195-million settlement of 4,000 claims against Boston Scientific Corp. involving defibrillators and pacemakers made by Guidant Corp.
The 62-year-old Boylan never wears a suit coat into a mediation session. Rather, he makes the coffee himself and steps into the meeting room with his shirt sleeves rolled up, calling everyone by their first names in an effort to take some of the edge off what can often be a highly charged environment.
“Some settlement masters impose their will more,” said Zimmerman, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney in the Boston Scientific case. “They say, ‘This is how I see it and this is the way it’s going to be.’
“He doesn’t do that at all. He has a very different style to get you to understand what needs to happen to reach a resolution and really take the temperature down during heated negotiations.”
It’s the same kind of approach Boylan took with his son and two daughters in the small town of Willmar, about two hours west of the Twin Cities.
“His view always was ‘everybody puts their pants on the same way in the morning, one leg at a time,”’ said Art G. Boylan, an attorney at Leonard Street. “That is certainly his approach. He has the ability to be comfortable in almost any room, whether it is with NFL owners all the way down to the local VFW or something similar.”
Boylan grew up in Chicago, the son of Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. in the late 1920s. He quickly became a sports fan, watching Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita lead the Chicago Blackhawks and also developing an affinity for baseball and his father’s favorite team, the White Sox.
He went to college at St. Mary’s in Winona and earned his law degree from Chicago Kent College of Law in 1976 before settling in Willmar and practicing law at Hulstrand, Anderson, and Larson.
The city slicker got involved in his community, serving as president of the Lion’s Club, the Willmar Hockey Association and the Barn Community Theatre, director of the Willmar Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Willmar United Way.
“He’s the kind of guy you could have a conversation with him,” said District Judge Don Spilseth, who worked alongside Boylan in Willmar. “You could go have a beer with him. He’s a family kind of guy.”
Boylan was appointed to the Minnesota District Court bench in 1986, and longtime Willmar City Attorney Rich Ronning said he was an “all-business type of judge” who never lost his cool in a courtroom. But that didn’t keep him from cracking down when he felt necessary.
Ronning recalled showing up for a case early in Boylan’s tenure when his opposing attorney was late. Boylan levied a fine and didn’t rescind the penalty after the hearing.
“That’s the only time I can recall an attorney being fined for being late,” Ronning said. “Word traveled fast. Don’t be late for any of Boylan’s hearings.”
The stickler in him hasn’t gone away. Boylan will often tell lawyers who fly into town for a big mediation to “bring your toothbrush,” meaning they can expect to stick around for a while, Zimmerman said.
He won’t go for the line “I have a plane to catch,” Zimmerman said.
It’s conceivable that Boylan told NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and players’ representative DeMaurice Smith to bring their toothbrushes last week.
With the traditional start of training camps three weeks away, and the deadline for canceling preseason games getting closer, contingents for both sides arrived in Minneapolis on Tuesday for another round of talks. After an abbreviated session on Wednesday, the two sides met for more than 15 hours Thursday, not leaving the law offices where they were talking until after midnight.
Still a deal remains elusive. Both sides left Friday with no agreement in place and talks expected to resume Tuesday in New York.
Few expect Boylan to get discouraged. If anything, his son said, the more complex and high-stakes the mediation, the better.
“Certainly these more high profile, more significant cases are a lot of fun for him,” Art G. Boylan said. “You’ve got really sophisticated lawyers. You’ve got really sophisticated parties. You’ve got a lot at stake and, professionally, I think that is trying. But it is also incredibly rewarding.
“He never says that, but you can sense he’s having fun when there are more sophisticated, more complicated cases that he’s working through.”
If his son is right, Judge Boylan must be having the time of his life right now.