The NFL will transition from the field to the court Wednesday, and the preliminary injunction hearing will prove to be a truly historical event.
The NFL players have filed an injunction to block the lockout, and Judge Susan Nelson will preside over the case in St. Paul, Minn. One of four things will happen in this case: Nelson will rule in the players' favor and block the lockout; Nelson will rule in the owners' favor and allow the lockout to continue; Nelson will delay the hearing until later in the summer; or Nelson will order the two sides to head back to mediation.
It's important to note that no matter what happens Wednesday, the players and owners can continue negotiations for a new CBA.
Here is a breakdown of why each of those outcomes could happen and what it will mean from there.
Nelson Rules in Players' Favor
There is no doubt that this is the best outcome for the short term, and this is what football fans want to happen. If the injunction is granted, the owners will appeal the case to a panel of three judges to keep the lockout intact.
If the players are granted the injunction, the owners will have to open the doors and resume business. That will lead to free agency and trades, perhaps even before the draft. And Nelson will almost certainly revert the league back to the 2010 financial structure under the CBA guidelines.
Most importantly, this means there will be a full season in 2011.
The players and owners will still have to reach a CBA agreement, and there's no guarantee that will happen quickly, especially with the antitrust lawsuit still going on. Remember, the league operated without a CBA from 1987 to 1993, so this is a matter that could still take years to resolve.
When the players decertified last month, the NFL world assumed Judge David Doty would preside over the injunction case, and that would have led to a certain victory for the players. Since Nelson is on the case, league sources have indicated to NESN.com the optimism from the players' side has slightly decreased. But even still, the players believe this is the most likely outcome.
Nelson Rules in Owners' Favor
If the players can't prove they will suffer irreparable damages — meaning, no monetary value would make up for the damages — this will be the outcome. Irreparable damages, essentially, mean a loss of playing time that the players can't get back because their careers are limited by time.
If the owners win, the players will go through the same appeal process as listed in the first scenario.
And also, if the owners win, there will be no football until the two sides reach a new CBA. To put it as bluntly as possible, this outcome would put the 2011 season in grave danger because the players and owners are so far apart in their CBA negotiations.
This also seems like the most unlikely of the four scenarios from the injunction hearing.
Nelson Delays the Hearing
This will happen if Nelson believes the players won't suffer irreparable damages until the start of training camp, and the hearing could get pushed back by a few months. And since there nearly four months until the start of camp, it would be easy to see why Nelson wouldn't buy the notion that players are currently suffering irreparable damages.
However, without a full course of free agency that stretched out before the draft, the veteran free agents can claim they've lost value, both to their most recent teams and the other suitors around the league. This might be considered an irreparable damage in the court's eyes. Plus, the players have already lost three weeks of organized voluntary workouts at the team facility, as well as the opportunity to work with team doctors to recover from last season's injuries.
Under this scenario, the players would likely lose all of minicamp and organized team activities, and it could delay the start of training camp, which will likely yield more injuries (though that may be tough to prove with hard evidence from a players' perspective).
Depending on how long this hearing is delayed, it could cut into the 2011 regular-season schedule.
Nelson Orders the Two Sides to Return to Mediation
Nelson has the authority to order and preside over mediation sessions as the owners and players work toward a new CBA. Since it appeared they made the most progress in mediation in late February and early March, Nelson might believe this is the best way to conduct business, and it also might be the best course of action for the two sides to reach a new CBA.
If Nelson determines the mediation sessions are not up to standard, she will still have the opportunity to choose whether or not to grant an injunction to block the lockout.