U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson gave the players an early victory Monday in their fight with the owners over how to divide the $9 billion business, granting their injunction request to lift the lockout.
The fate of next season remained in limbo: The NFL filed a notice of appeal questioning whether Nelson exceeded her jurisdiction, seeking relief from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. Hours later, the league filed a motion for an expedited stay, meaning it wants Nelson to put her ruling on hold to let the appeals process play out.
What will happen over the next few days is murky, too. Will players burst through the weight room doors at team facilities and start studying their playbooks? Or will they keep to the mostly individual routines they've developed since the start of the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987?
"I really think that it's in the best interest of the players because this is such a sensitive time to stay back and let the dust settle," said linebacker Ben Leber, one of the 10 plaintiffs in the still-pending antitrust lawsuit filed against the league when the union broke up last month. "The way I understand it is we're in a Wild West right now. Football is back to business, but guess what? There's no rules. There's a lot of positive to that, but there's also a lot of negatives."
DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFLPA, said the organization -- now a trade association and not a union -- planned to give players "guidance" about what to do. He said players were eager to resume court-ordered mediation to resolve the fight.
"My hope is really is 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 three weeks ago in St. Paul, Minn. Nelson persistently questioned NFL lawyer David Boies about his repeated argument that she shouldn't have jurisdiction over a labor dispute while an unfair negotiation charge against the players is 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.
Not only did she declare that players are likely to suffer harm by the lockout, a legal requirement for granting the injunction, but she also wrote that they're already feeling the hurt.
She cited football players' short careers, arguing that monetary damages wouldn't be enough relief.
What Nelson didn't do, 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 restricted 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.
The NFL would also need to determine whether off-season 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.
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 that the appeals court would agree.
"But we also believe that this dispute will inevitably end with a collective bargaining agreement, which would be in the best interests of players, clubs and fans. We can reach a fair agreement only if we continue negotiations toward that goal," the NFL said.
The owners and players are not scheduled to meet with mediators again until May 16, four days after a hearing on whether players should get damages in their related fight with owners over $4 billion in broadcast revenue.