MINNEAPOLIS — Seven weeks into the NFL lockout, players have an early triumph over the owners in court.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson ordered an immediate end to the lockout Monday, siding with the players in their bitter fight with the owners over how to divide the $9 billion business.
The fate of the 2011 season remained in limbo: The NFL responded by filing a notice of appeal questioning whether Nelson exceeded her jurisdiction, seeking relief from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
What will happen in the next few days is murky, too.
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Players may very well show up at team facilities on Tuesday; whether they'll be allowed access is unclear.
DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFLPA, said on ESPN2 that they planned to give players "guidance" about what to do moving forward and said players were eager to resume court-ordered mediation to resolve the pending litigation.
"My hope is really that there's somebody on the other side who loves football as much as our players and fans do," he said.
Nelson's ruling was a stern rebuke of the NFL's case, hardly a surprise given the court's history with the league and her pattern of questioning during a hearing here three weeks ago in St. Paul, Minn.
In a room packed with lawyers, players and league officials, Nelson politely but persistently questioned NFL lawyer David Boies about his repeated argument that she shouldn't have jurisdiction over a labor dispute with an unfair negotiation charge against the players pending with the National Labor Relations Board.
In her ruling, Nelson rejected that contention. She recognized the NFL Players Association's decision to "de-unionize" as legitimate because it has "serious consequences" for the players.
Nelson even referenced her colleague, U.S. District Judge David Doty, who has frequently ruled for the players in the past. Not only did she declare that players are likely to suffer harm by the lockout, a legal requirement for granting the injunction, Nelson wrote that they're already feeling the hurt now.
She cited their short careers, arguing that monetary damages wouldn't be enough relief.
What Nelson didn't do on Monday, however, was tackle the issue of the antitrust lawsuit filed last month when the union broke up. That, she wrote, "must wait another day."
If the injunction is upheld, the NFL must resume business in some fashion.
It could invoke the 2010 rules for free agency, meaning players would need six seasons of service before becoming unrestricted free agents when their contracts expire; previously, it was four years. The requirement for unrestricted free agents would be four years rather than the three years before 2010. There also was no salary cap in 2010, meaning teams could spend as much — or as little — as they wanted.
And the NFL would need to determine whether offseason workouts can be held while the appeal is pending.
Owners imposed the lockout after talks broke down March 11 and the players disbanded their union. A group of players filed the injunction request along with a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the league.
Jim Quinn, an attorney for the players, said the pressure is on the league.
"They better act quickly, because as of right now there's no stay and, presumably, players could sign with teams," Quinn said. "There are no guidelines as of right now, so they have to put something in place quickly."
In a statement, the NFL again argued its belief that "federal law bars injunctions in labor disputes" and expressed confidence the appeals court would agree.
Nelson heard arguments on the injunction at a hearing on April 6 and ordered the two sides to resume mediation. The owners and players, who failed to reach consensus after 16 days of mediated talks earlier this year, met over four days with a federal magistrate but did not announce any progress on solving the impasse.
They are not scheduled to meet again until May 16, four days after Doty holds a hearing on whether players should get damages in their related fight with owners over some $4 billion in broadcast revenue.
With appeals expected, the fight seems likely to drag on through the spring and, possibly, into the summer. The closer it gets to August, when training camps and the preseason get into full swing, the more likely it becomes that regular season games could be lost.