MINNEAPOLIS — The NFL is falling behind in its court fight with the players over the future of the $9 billion business.
The federal judge who lifted the NFL lockout two days ago dealt another blow to the league late Wednesday, denying its request to put her ruling on hold pending appeals and guaranteeing more limbo for the 32 teams, thousands of players and millions of fans.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson wrote that the NFL "has not met its burden for a stay pending appeal, expedited or otherwise." She dismissed the NFL's argument that she didn't have jurisdiction and that it is facing irreparable harm because of her decision to end the 45-day lockout.
"In short, the world of 'chaos' the NFL claims it has been thrust into — essentially the 'free-market' system this nation otherwise willfully operates under — is not compelled by this court's order," Nelson wrote.
The judge acknowledged that her decision will be appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis and the NFL has promised that step.
The ruling means the league has no rules in place, shelved since the collective bargaining agreement ended on March 11 and the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 was imposed shortly afterward. But Nelson said that needn't be the case.
"The league may choose to act in accordance with its expressed belief that the players remain a union and that they have reached a state of impasse, or the League may choose to chart a different course, implementing a version of the 2010 player system, or something different altogether," she wrote. "Like any defendant in any lawsuit, defendants themselves must make a decision about how to proceed and accept the consequences of their decision."
Whether that includes free agency or other rules drawn up even as the draft gets underway Thursday was anyone's guess. There was no immediate word from the league after Nelson's decision.
The NFL had argued that Nelson had no jurisdiction and that she shouldn't make a decision while a complaint of bad-faith negotiation against the players was still pending with the National Labor Relations Board. The league also argued that it shouldn't be subject to some of the antitrust claims leveled by the players with the collective bargaining deal barely expired.
The judge shot all of those down.
The league's plea to Nelson for the stay was also based on a purported fear that an immediate lifting of the lockout would result in a free agency free-for-all that could create a mess that would be difficult to undo should a new collective bargaining agreement lead to different rules.
Nelson called that an "incorrect premise." She insisted that her order was simply an end to the lockout, not a prohibition of the player constraints like franchise and transition tags that help the league maintain competitive balance.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, during an earlier predraft event in New York, said he wasn't worried about the state of confusion tarnishing the league's image but stressed his desire to "remove" the uncertainty.
"It's one of the things I don't think is healthy for the players, the clubs and most importantly our fans," he said.
Attorneys for the players had ridiculed the NFL's argument that it risks either violating antitrust laws by coming up with new league rules without a CBA in place or harming its competitive balance by allowing unrestricted free agency.
"If the NFL defendants are faced with a dilemma, they put themselves in that position by repeatedly imposing rules and restrictions that violate the antitrust laws," the attorneys wrote. "Any alleged predicament is of their own making."
The solution, the players argued, is to simply implement a system that does not violate antitrust laws.
"Again, the NFL argues it will suffer irreparable harm because it is now 'forced to choose between the irreparable harm of unrestricted free agency or the irreparable harm of more treble damages lawsuits,'" Nelson wrote. "But no such Scylla-or-Charybdis choice exists here. There is no injunction in place preventing the NFL from exercising, under its hoped-for protection of the labor laws, any of its rights to negotiate terms and conditions of employment, such as free agency."
At an April 6 hearing, Nelson — while pushing both sides to resume negotiating a new agreement – recognized the urgency of the situation and declared that both sides had a lot "at risk." Nelson's orders have indicated her respect of the public's interest in a settlement to keep the 2011 season on track.
When the league asked to respond to the bond request by the players, she demanded it by the end of the day, one hour before the NFL's own response to the clarification request was due. Then came Nelson's denial of the stay, long after sunset and long after the courthouse normally closes.
The NFL will now place its hopes with the 8th Circuit, viewed as a more friendly venue to businesses like the league than the federal courts in Minnesota.
Goodell said the surest way for the league to operate without running afoul of antitrust laws is to get back to bargaining with the players. The two sides had 16 days of talks with a mediator earlier this year and four more with a federal magistrate. Little progress has been seen, though the two sides are scheduled to meet again May 16.
"That's how we've been successful. That's how other leagues have been successful, and it should continue that way," Goodell said.
Most players again stayed away from team headquarters for a second day Wednesday, working out on their own.
"What we're looking for is a little clarity as far as what the rules are, so we can operate on the same page. So we'll just have to wait and see what those rules are," coach Mike Shanahan said.