MINNEAPOLIS -- In this epic NFL game, the players have an early lead on the owners.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson ordered an immediate end to the lockout Monday, siding with the players in their fight with the owners over how to divide the $9 billion business.
Nelson granted a request for a preliminary injunction to lift the two-month lockout, saying she was swayed by the players' argument that the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 is hurting 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 said it would ask Nelson to put her order on hold with a stay so it can pursue an expedited appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
"We believe that federal law bars injunctions in labor disputes," the league said. "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."
Said Jim Quinn, an attorney for the players: "They better act quickly, because as of right now there's no stay and, presumably, players could sign with teams. There are no guidelines as of right now, so they have to put something in place quickly.
"It is their league: They can put in whatever they decide. If they put in something not restrictive to the players and fair to the players, that is fine. If not, we will litigate."
If the injunction is upheld, the NFL must resume business, although under what guidelines is uncertain.
It could invoke the 2010 rules for free agency, meaning players would need six seasons of service before becoming unrestricted free agents when their contracts expire; previously, it was four years. The requirement for unrestricted free agents would be four years rather than the three years before 2010. There also was no salary cap in 2010, meaning teams could spend as much -- or as little -- as they wanted.
Also, the NFL would need to determine what or if offseason workouts can be held while the appeal is being heard.
Clearly, it's complicated.
The NFL has 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.
At the hearing before Nelson on April 6, the crux of the argument from NFL lawyer David Boies was that the court shouldn't have control of a conflict that grew out of a labor dispute. Boies even tried to lighten the mood by telling her, "No lawyer ever wants to stand in front of a judge and say, 'You don't have jurisdiction.' "
The owners, in support of their argument, pointed to their pending unfair labor charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board that the players didn't negotiate in good faith.
Nelson disagreed -- and threw cold water on that hope, too.
"Although the NFL has filed a charge here, the NLRB has yet to issue any complaint and, in this court's considered judgment, it is likely that the Board will dismiss the charge," she wrote in her ruling.
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.
Nelson rejected the league's prediction that the NLRB would see the union's breakup as temporary, thus supporting the assertion that the dissolution was purely a tactical move.
"There is no legal support for any requirement that a disclaimer be permanent," Nelson wrote. "Employees have the right not only to organize as a union but also to refrain from such representation and, as relevant here, to 'de-unionize.' "
Nelson also stated that the so-called decertification was legitimate because of "serious consequences" for the players.
"This court need not resolve the debate about whether their motive was influenced by the expectation of this litigation," she wrote, calling that question irrelevant as long as the union followed through on the breakup.
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 impasse.
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."
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.
The NFL is going forward with the draft, which begins Thursday night.
Dolphins alternate player representative John Denney said he didn't think the ruling was the end of the dispute.
"Right now we got what we wanted, but it may be temporary," he said. "We'll have to let the judicial process play out."
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 Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller the lead plaintiff in that group.
Osi Umenyiora, the New York Giants defensive end and one of the plaintiffs, called the ruling a "win for the players and for the fans" in a statement.
"The lockout is bad for everyone, and players will continue to fight it," Umenyiora said. "We hope that this will bring us one step closer to playing the game we love."