THE NFL CLEARLY isn’t ready to get back to football and fans won’t like the sound of this, either: both sides are headed back to court.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who sided with the players and lifted the lockout this week, gave players a Wednesday morning deadline to tell her why she shouldn’t grant the NFL’s request to put her order on hold.
If Nelson denies the league’s expedited motion for a stay, the owners will ask the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis for the same thing. They’re also asking the appeals court, viewed as a more friendly venue to the league than the federal courts in Minnesota, to overturn Nelson’s decision.
And while that all plays out, the $9 billion business is in limbo.
In one of the oddest days in NFL history, players showed up at their team headquarters Tuesday and most were told they were welcome to come inside as long as they didn’t participate in “football activities.”
Most left in a matter of minutes with more questions than answers.
“It drives me insane, that’s what it does,” said Chicago rookie J’Marcus Webb, who was told he and a handful of other Bears couldn’t use the team’s weight room.
I’m trying to eat healthy and work out, do my job and right now I’m just stuck at home working out and watching cartoons all day.
What’s up with that? Let me get back to what I do best.
That could take a while. The 2011 season, and the business between 32 teams and their thousands of anxious players, are in a holding pattern. The NFL said it needed “a few days to sort this out” and provide some rules for everyone to follow.
“We are in the process of determining throughout the league as to just how we’ll proceed and when we’ll open the new year across the league, the new football year,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “We have not done that.”
In a question-and-answer memo distributed by the NFL Players Association and obtained by The Associated Press, free agents were told they can contact teams and shop their services, putting pressure on the NFL to set up a free-agency system that complies with antitrust laws.
The document also told players that teams are responsible for care of any football-related injury, meaning it’s “safer for players to work out on club property.”
NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said it was too soon to tell exactly when free agency would begin and which players would be eligible.
“What we need to do is let the dust settle for a day or two and see if the stay is put in place, and then we’ll all know more and go from there,” Pash said.
He expressed optimism and confidence about the league’s case — and the appellate court.
“On these issues in particular, the history of appeals court rulings has been quite different from how trial courts have looked at this,” Pash said. “We feel we have very credible legal arguments to assert, and we’ll know in a short period of time whether we’re right or not.”
At least the draft will be held this week, even if free agency and personnel swaps are up in the air. Few players, if any, are expected to show up at team facilities until things clear up.
Said New York Jets defensive lineman Mike DeVito after a fruitless visit Tuesday: “It was like a ghost town in there.”
“It’s very chaotic for the teams right now,” agent Drew Rosenhaus said. “It’s not chaotic for the players. Our position is the lockout is over, free agency should begin, signings should begin, offseason workouts should begin, everything should be going on.”
If Nelson’s ruling is upheld — by the judge herself or the appellate court — the NFL must resume business in some fashion.
It could invoke 2010 rules requiring six seasons of service before players can become unrestricted free agents when their contracts expire. There also was no salary cap in 2010, meaning teams could spend as much — or as little — as they wanted.
Green Bay Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy suggested that might be the plan.
“What we would probably do if Judge Nelson and the 8th Circuit deny our request for a stay would be play under the same rules that we had last year,” he said. “It’s 2010 rules, those were agreed to by the players in the collective bargaining agreement, I think that’s probably the rules that make the most sense.”
James Quinn, a lawyer for the players from Weil, Gotshal and Manges in New York, said if the league comes up with rules “we think they’re reasonable and legal, then God bless. If not, then we’ll keep fighting about it in court.”
Owners imposed the lockout after talks broke down March 11 and the players disbanded their union, clearing the way for an antitrust lawsuit still pending before Nelson. She ordered the two sides into mediation, but four days of talks with a federal magistrate ended with no signs of progress, just as 16 days of mediated talks did earlier this year.
The two sides 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 fight with owners over some $4 billion in broadcast revenue.
The fight seems likely to drag on through the spring. 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 could be lost.