The football world held its breath Monday night, trying to figure out what Judge Susan Nelson's ruling to lift the lockout imposed by National Football League owners means. It's possible, though not at all likely, that the Minneapolis judge's ruling could open the 32 teams' doors for official business as early as Tuesday.
There were many more questions than answers Monday night after Nelson's 89-page ruling backed the players in their fight to stop NFL owners from locking out the players to force negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. The most pressing question, obviously: What happens now?
The league filed two motions with Nelson's court Monday night. The first was a motion of clarification, seeking more information on the practical implications of the 89-page ruling. The second was a motion to stay her ruling while the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis hears the NFL's appeal.
Regardless of whether Nelson allows the stay, the future is murky. Three things could happen:
• She could allow the stay, keeping NFL doors locked until the appeals court hears the case.
• She could not allow the stay and order the 2011 league year -- with free-agency and player trades -- to begin immediately, or within days ... which would throw the league into chaos this week as it prepares for the three-day draft to begin Thursday night in New York.
• Or she could allow the Eighth Circuit to rule on the stay, which one legal expert Monday night said would take between two and seven days. In this case, the appeals court could either order the league year to start immediately or wait until the resolution of the case in appeals.
In other words, there were very few answers as the clock neared midnight Monday. But one incredible possibility in this odd case was that if the judge didn't allow the stay, and didn't allow the appeals court to rule on it either, she could order the league year to begin this week -- directly opposite the 76th NFL draft. That would drive general managers and club officials batty. Never since free agency was adopted by the league in 1993 has the league seen the free-market open and the draft take place anywhere near each other -- never mind in the same week.
"Nothing would surprise us,'' said one source close to the league hierarchy Monday night.
One legal expert said Monday night he would be surprised if both Nelson and the appeals court denied the stay. His reasoning was that the league would argue that irreparable harm couldn't be done to players in April and May if they were in limbo, and free agency, if it began in June, would still give the estimated 495 free-agent players time to find employment for the 2011 season. But the way the last two judges -- David Doty, most recently in the lockout insurance case, and now Nelson -- have consistently slapped around NFL owners over the past two decades, it's not hard to imagine any legal argument going against the league.
There were indications Monday night that players may report for work Tuesday morning. One agent said he had advised a client with a $750,000 offseason workout bonus to report to his team's practice facility at 9 a.m. Tuesday, whether he'd be allowed to work out or not. Player representative Ryan Clark of the Steelers told Ed Bouchette of the
The league source said NFL officials were still deciding what to do when players reported for work Tuesday, and likely wouldn't have a final decision on that until getting further opinion from Nelson on Tuesday.