MINNEAPOLIS — After seven weeks of bitter back-and-forth, failed talks and growing uncertainty about the 2011 season, a federal judge ordered an immediate end to the NFL lockout.
But there are many hurdles to clear and questions to answer before pro football is back on track.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson gave the players a 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, however, 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. The 8th Circuit is known to be conservative and often rules in favor of employers. Nine of the 11 active 8th Circuit judges were appointed by Republican presidents.
What happens in the next few days is murky. Some players under contract might show up today at their teams' headquarters, many hoping to collect workout bonuses.
"The players have said all along, 'The law is on our side.' Judge Nelson's ruling reaffirms our contention," said Jay Feely, the former Jesuit and Storm standout who was Arizona's player rep before the union dissolved last month.
Bills safety George Wilson confirmed that the NFL Players Association e-mailed players late Monday suggesting they report to work today. He said players were told they should be granted access under normal circumstances and if they are denied access the teams would be in violation of the judge's ruling.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told the NFL Network that any player who shows up to team facilities will be allowed in.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said players were eager to resume court-ordered mediation to resolve the fight.
In a room packed with lawyers, players and league officials, Nelson denied the contention of NFL lawyer David Boies 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.
Nelson recognized the NFLPA's decision to "de-unionize" as legitimate because it has "serious consequences" for the players.
Nelson declared that players are likely to suffer harm by the lockout, a legal requirement for granting the injunction, and wrote that they're feeling the hurt now.
She cited their short careers, arguing that monetary damages wouldn't be enough relief.
Nelson didn't tackle the issue of the antitrust lawsuit filed last month when the union broke up.
Seth Borden, a labor law expert at McKenna, Long and Aldridge in New York, emphasized that Nelson stuck to one topic in a multifaceted dispute.
"The judge was very clear that the ultimate resolution of the players' claims against the league is not dealt with in this," he said. "Only one issue she has addressed here: whether or not the effort of the owners to disallow the players from playing at this time potentially violates the antitrust laws. It certainly tilts some leverage back toward the players."
If the injunction is upheld, the NFL must resume business. It could invoke 2010 rules for free agency, meaning players would need six seasons of service before becoming unrestricted free agents when their contracts expire, instead of four years. The requirement for restricted free agents would be four years, and there would be no salary cap.
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.
"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.
Players and owners are scheduled to meet again May 16.