MINNEAPOLIS -- The NFL was granted its motion for a stay-on-appeal by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday.
As such, the league will maintain its right to lock the players out until its appeal of Judge Susan Nelson's decision to grant a lockout-lifting injunction is ruled on. That case will be heard on June 3 in St. Louis. Rulings in federal cases like this one generally take 30-45 days, though the injunction hearings have been put on an expedited schedule by the 8th Circuit.
Meanwhile, the league and players returned to federal mediation, as ordered by Nelson in April, under the auspices of U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan on Monday. Michael Hausfeld, lead lawyer for the Eller class in Brady & Eller et al v. the National Football League et al, said the players have a proposal from the league in hand, but a source later described it as nothing more than a couple pages of bullet-points providing a framework.
The expectation of most on Monday was that the sides were headed for St. Louis and the 8th Circuit, though they will return to Boylan's chambers for more mediation on Tuesday.
"We obviously hoped that the circuit would not grant the stay and that football would come back for our fans and our players," said NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith. "Right now, our guys are out there working out for free, because they dig the game. The case will be heard by the appellate court on June 3, we look forward to the argument. But look, this is something the players are prepared for. It's a disappointment, obviously.
"As far as we can tell, this is the first sports league in history that's sued to not play its game. Congratulations. What we're going to do is continue to work hard on behalf of the players. We believe in the mediation process, we're going to honor the confidentiality and my hope is that someday soon we can get back to playing football."
The ruling for the 8th Circuit was a clear win for the NFL, not just in its result, but also its wording. It supports the NFL's interpretation of the Norris-Laguardia Act, saying "We have serious doubts that the district court had jurisdiction to enjoin the League's lockout." And it also states that the NFL's appeal has a likelihood of succeeding, saying, "Our present view is that Judge Nelson's interpretation is unlikely to prevail."
"It's a huge win for the owners," said NFL Network legal analyst and director of sports law at Tulane University, Gabe Feldman. "It's still only a preliminary ruling, and it doesn't touch on the ability of the players to decertify and bring their underlying antitrust claim, but a majority of the panel made it clear that they don't think Judge Nelson -- or any court -- has the power to enjoin a lockout.
"Unless the two judges in the majority change their minds between now and June 3rd, it is likely that they will reverse Judge Nelson, deny the injunction, and reinstate the lockout."
NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said he hoped the ruling would move the discussions along.
"You don't resolve things through litigation," he said. "We've been clear on that. And what we need to be doing is focusing all our attention on the process that's going on here in this building, with the assistance of the chief judge and in serious discussions with the players.
"We have an opportunity to resolve this matter and get the game back on the field, and that really should be our exclusive focus -- Not litigation, not stays or injunctions, things like that. That's not going to solve anything. I'm glad that it came out the way that it did. But it's just one step in a process and we need to focus on negotiation. That's the only way we're going to resolve this."
As was the case during the last two waves of mediation -- April 14 and 15, then April 19 and 20 -- this phase is expected to last two days, and included the presence of four NFL owners, commissioner Roger Goodell, Pash and Smith.
Vikings linebacker Ben Leber was the only player to appear, though Chiefs linebacker and Brady class plaintiff Mike Vrabel was scheduled to, before his flight from Columbus was cancelled. Vrabel is now scheduled to make the trip on Tuesday morning for the second and final day of this part of the mediation.
If the next step in the process does come June 3, then not much changed from morning to afternoon in Minneapolis, with the parties entering the courthouse expecting that would be the case.
"We would like to make progress, but it'll be hard to do," said Steelers president Art Rooney II, on his way into the building. "We have to wait to see what happens June 3."
Rooney was joined by Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, Giants owner John Mara and Bengals owner Mike Brown. Through the three phases of mediation, nine of 10 members of the NFL's labor committee have appeared, with Chargers owner Dean Spanos the lone exception. Richardson has been here for all three sets of meetings before Boylan, and Rooney has been twice.
Meanwhile Indianapolis Colts owber Jim Irsay tweeted his disdain for the litigation taking place, writing Tuesday, "The mantra is not end lockout,it's get new collect. bargain. agreement.We have no CBA at this point,an obvious fact that gets lost n shuffle"
He added: "Jeff Saturday and I could get this thing done,on cocktail napkins,over a long lunch at Rick's Boatyard. it's not that hard! Everyone's so damn serious,suits,briefcases,lawyers! Let's put on jeans n golf clothes,players/owners remembering we're friends,hang a little."
Both Rooney and Mara declined to comment on the owners' proposal as they left the building, as did Smith.
"We've got a mediation process where Judge Nelson ruled that it should be confidential," Smith said. "We respect the court process. And I think when a judge of these United States asks the parties to sit down, and try to mediate their differences and resolve them without litigation -- that's the way our process works, that's the way our system works."
Early in the day, Hausfeld handed a press release to reporters on his way into the courthouse, proclaiming that "The largest collective group of representative(s) of retired NFL players ever assembled met yesterday in Minneapolis" and pledged solidarity to the cause.
Named as part of that group were Eller, Irv Cross, Nolan Harrison, Tony Davis, Jim McFarland, Jeff Nixon, Dave Pear, Brent Boyd, Bob Stein and Shawn Stuckey. Mike Ditka was listed as "expressing support but not able to be present."
After the mediation, Hausfeld said, "When we met this morning, I think there was a great deal of skepticism expressed, that we would receive a proposal. And we have a proposal. It is probably not one that would be acceptable as is, but it clearly opens the dialogue and breaches a stalemate that previously existed."
Hausfeld added there's another meeting for retired players, hosted by Ditka in Chicago, scheduled for next Wednesday. He added that Davis is connected with George Martin, long a dissenter from the NFLPA's cause.