Judge Nelson lifts lockout; NFL appeals

Posted April 25, 2011 @ 8:09 p.m.
Posted By PFW staff

Updated 9:51 p.m. ET

Federal Judge Susan Richard Nelson has ruled for the players in the "Tom Brady et al vs. NFL" antitrust suit, lifting the lockout.

Nelson did not rule a stay — which would have temporarily suspended her ruling.

In the conclusion of her finding, Judge Nelson wrote: "the 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.

"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.

"The Brady 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.

"The public interest favors the enforcement of the antitrust laws and their underlying pro-competition policy, and the countervailing labor-law policy favoring collective bargaining is no longer implicated here. Finally, the Brady Plaintiff's 'fair chance of success' on the merits of the lockout — which again does not require that success is 'likely' or even greater than fifty percent — shifts the balance decisively in favor of issuing the injunction against the lockout."

The NFL filed its motion to stay in Nelson's court on Monday night, per the New York Times' Judy Battista. If that motion is denied, they will ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to grant a stay to keep the lockout in place while the league appeals Nelson's ruling on the injunction. NFL owners filed their appeal to the judge's ruling on Monday evening, according to reports.

"We will promptly seek a stay from Judge Nelson pending an expedited appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals," the NFL said in a statement released after the ruling. "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."

If the owners lose in their quest to have a stay ordered pending an appeal, the 2011 league year would begin, and player movement could commence. League owners discussed the ruling on a conference call Monday night for more than 45 minutes, according to Pro Football Talk.

NFLPA executive director and co-class counsel DeMaurice Smith said after the ruling: "I'm happy for our players and for our fans. Today, those who love football are winners."

Giants DE Osi Umenyiora, a plaintiff in the case, said: "Today's ruling is a win for the players and for the fans that want to see a full NFL season in 2011. The lockout is bad for everyone and players will continue to fight it. We hope that this will bring us one step closer to playing the game we love."

Some NFL players are expected to show up at their team practice facilites on Tuesday morning now that the lockout has been lifted. Steelers SS Ryan Clark told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he was going to arrive early in the day.

"I'm trying to get guys there at 8 o'clock, to get out there and show we want to be here, we want too be part of this organization and we want to be on the field," Clark said on Monday, per the Post-Gazette report. "We want to show this is not a litigation process but an attempt to have football in 2011."

NFLPA attorney Jim Quinn told USA Today: "By law, we have to give it a day or so to let the dust settle and see if a stay gets in place and then we'll decide what happens next."

The Way We See It

So, what does all of this mean? PFW publisher Hub Arkush answers some questions on the topic.

Can teams and players now have contact?

Yes. Judge Nelson has ruled that the lockout violates the antitrust laws. The owners were certainly prepared for this ruling and have been instructed by their negotiating team to do nothing until a decision has been reached on whether or not Judge Nelson's ruling will be stayed. It would not be surprising if the NFLPA is instructing players to show up for work Tuesday morning, and short of a decision already in place staying Judge Nelson's ruling, the owners would have no choice but to allow players currently under contract into team facilities.

Why did the judge wait until the end of the business day on Monday to issue her ruling?

It is fair to speculate that was done intentionally to allow the owners a chance to be at the appellate court first thing Tuesday morning and create the smallest window for any individual owner to break ranks or any business to be transacted prior to a ruling by the appellate court of a stay.

Can NFL teams currently sign free agents?

Technically, the answer is yes. And to go a step further, for the moment, no franchise tags, transition tags or restrictions on unsigned free agents exist. It is almost certain, however, that the owners have prepared for this possibility and will refrain from breaking ranks at least for the first 48-72 hours, until they have some sense of whether or not Judge Nelson's ruling will remain in force.

If the appellate court agrees to hear the NFL's appeal, how quickly could we expect a decision?

At the moment, that is secondary to both the owners' and players' main concern. The court will almost certainly rule in the next 24-72 hours on whether or not Judge Nelson's ruling will be stayed. The owners will proceed with their appeal regardless of whether or not Judge Nelson's ruling is stayed. But those hearings and the appellate court's eventual decision is a matter of at least weeks, and more likely months, away as new motions need to be prepared by both sides and eventually heard by the appellate court before a decision can be reached.

If the owners are not successful getting a stay of Judge Nelson's ruling from the appellate court, the NFL will be forced to abandon its lockout strategy and reopen for business based on a set of rules of their choosing, which have almost certainly been prepared so as not to increase any liability they might have stemming from the players' antitrust lawsuit. It is almost certain if Judge Nelson's ruling is not stayed, that the league will begin operations again under the 2010 league rules — which required a free agent to have at least six accrued seasons to be eligible for unrestricted free agency, and would acknowledge franchise tags and tendered offers to restricted free agents, which while open to debate in the antitrust proceedings, most likely wouldn't increase the owners' potential liability because they were agreed to in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players.