Minneapolis — After seven weeks of bitter back and forth, failed talks and growing uncertainty about the 2011 season, a federal judge has ordered an immediate end to the NFL lockout.
But there are many hurdles to clear and questions to answer before pro football is actually back on track.
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, however, 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. 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 happens in 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?
“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,” 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.
Bills safety George Wilson confirmed that the NFLPA 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.
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 an opinion piece posted late Monday night on the Wall Street Journal’s website, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote that Nelson’s ruling “may significantly alter professional football as we know it. ... By blessing this negotiating tactic (recognizing the players’ right to dissolve their union), the decision may endanger one of the most popular and successful sports leagues in history.”
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith 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.