A federal judge ordered an end to the NFL lockout on Monday, giving the players an early victory in their fight with the owners over how to divide the $9 billion business.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson said she was swayed by the players' argument that that the lockout, now in its second month, was causing irreparable harm to their careers.
The plaintiffs "have made a strong showing that allowing the League to continue their 'lockout' is presently inflicting, and will continue to inflict, irreparable harm upon them, particularly when weighed against the lack of any real injury that would be imposed on the NFL by issuing the preliminary injunction," Nelson wrote.
The NFL promised an immediate appeal.
"We will promptly seek a stay from Judge Nelson pending an expedited appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals," the league said. "We believe that federal law bars injunctions in labor disputes. We are confident that the Eighth Circuit will 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."
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.
The owners argued it was their right to institute the lockout and suggested Nelson didn't have jurisdiction while the National Labor Relations Board considers an unfair labor charge filed by the league that players didn't negotiate in good faith.
Nelson disagreed, and said the NLRB proceeding shouldn't be used to affect the court case here.
Nelson heard arguments on the injunction at a hearing on April 6 and ordered the two sides to resume mediation while she was considering her decision. 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 NFL's first work stoppage since 1987.
They are not scheduled to meet again until May 16, four days after another judge holds a hearing on whether players should get damages in their related fight with owners over some $4 billion in broadcast revenue.
And now comes Nelson's decision to lift the injunction.
"(T)he public ramifications of this dispute exceed the abstract principles of the antitrust laws, as professional football involves many layers of tangible economic impact, ranging from broadcast revenues down to concessions sales," she wrote. "And, of course, the public interest represented by the fans of professional football — who have a strong investment in the 2011 season — is an intangible interest that weighs against the lockout. In short, this particular employment dispute is far from a purely private argument over compensation."
If her ruling stands, it is still unclear exactly what happens next. The collective bargaining agreement has expired, so how the league would handle free agency, trades and offseason workouts at team headquarters, all of which were banned under the lockout, remains to be seen.
The NFL even argued to Nelson that stopping the lockout would open all 32 teams up to additional antitrust claims simply for working together to solve the labor dispute. Antitrust claims carry triple damages for any harm proven, meaning hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake.
But 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 will be lost.
"Tomorrow is going to come regardless of what we do here, so we have to work within that framework," Hall of Famer Carl Eller, a plaintiff, said after one of the recent mediation sessions. "In order to have a season, preserve a season, prepare for a season, those are real consequences."
And the antitrust lawsuit is pending, too, with lead plaintiffs that include MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. The suit has been combined with two other similar claims from retirees, former players and rookies-to-be, with Eller the lead plaintiff in that group.
Granting the injunction swings some of the leverage to the players' side, which could actually bring the two sides closer to a resolution, according to Seth Borden, a labor law expert at McKenna, Long and Aldridge in New York.
"It's still going to boil down to the way the parties view their respective positions and respective leverage," Borden said. "Until the league and the players feel like they're at the point of no return for next season, progress will be slow toward that overall resolution."