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Judge denies league's request for stay of lockout ruling

MINNEAPOLIS -- The NFL's request for a stay of U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson's ruling, granting the players an injunction to lift the lockout, was denied Wednesday, leaving the sides in the state of limbo they had been in the previous 48 hours.

The NFL's stance has been that the beginning of the league year wouldn't occur until it had a chance to seek a stay, and the it now will try to get one with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which also will hear the appeal of the injunction.

The stance of the plaintiffs in the Brady et al v. National Football League et al case is that the league should be forced to open for business with an injunction granted and a stay denied, and that a "status quo" approach -- employed by teams in regards to player transactions -- could be grounds for collusion charges.

By denying the league's request for a stay, Nelson leaves the sides to continue to argue these points as NFL officials work to get the 8th Circuit to grant the motion that the St. Paul, Minn., court would not.

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; the NFL has promised to take that step.

"We are filing tonight a request with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay of the preliminary injunction pending our appeal," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a written statement Wednesday night. "We believe there are strong legal and practical reasons that support a stay and that the Court of Appeals should have an opportunity to address the important legal issues that will be presented. We have asked the Court of Appeals to consider on an expedited basis both our request for a stay and the appeal itself. We are evaluating the District Court's decision and will advise our clubs (Thursday) morning on how to proceed."

For now, not much will change. On Thursday morning, Aiello issued the following statement: "Clubs were notified last night they should continue to follow the current rules and practices until otherwise advised by our office."

Also on Thursday, NFLPA outside counsel Jim Quinn and Jeffrey Kessler, who are serving as lawyers for the Brady class, wrote a two-paragraph email to all players and agents clarifying their interpretation of the fallout of Nelson's decision. Quinn and Kessler called Nelson's denial of the NFL's motion to stay her decision "very strong", noted that the injunction is in "full, immediate force," then addressed the NFL's pursuit of an emergency stay with the 8th Circuit.

"Unless and until such a request is granted, however, we believe the 2011 League Year now has to begin," Quinn and Kessler wrote. "The Clubs must open their facilities to allow players to work out, meet with coaches and otherwise perform their jobs; and the NFL and the Clubs cannot collectively continue to refuse to deal with players. It is our view that the NFL and the Clubs will be in contempt of court if they do not comply with the order unless and until they hear differently from the Eighth Circuit."

Quinn and Kessler told the players and agents they would be apprised of the NFL's plan moving forward later in the day.

The NFL's 21-page motion to stay the ruling includes a proposed timeline for the appeal, listing May 10 for the NFL's opening brief, May 24 for the Brady class' opening brief and May 31 for the NFL's reply brief, with oral arguments coming "as soon as possible."

The league's argument stood on the some of the same ground as during the injunction hearing, with the contention that the National Labor Relations Board holds primary jurisdiction over the case and that the Norris-La Guardia Act prevents a federal court from issuing an injunction in a case "growing from a labor dispute." The idea this time was to break down the judge's thinking.

The NFL's argument reads: "The District Court brushed aside all three legal obstacles with the simple rationale that the NFLPA's unilateral disclaimer changes everything and renders the labor laws irrelevant." The league cited comments by players Mike Vrabel, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, and Derrick Mason, a wide receiver for the Baltimore Ravens, to assert that the NFLPA was still operating as a union.

The league also argued that the "absent a stay, it will be impossible to restore the parties to their respective positions as of April 25, 2011, if this Court determines that the District Court's Order was in error. Nor would it be possible to unscramble the egg in terms of player transactions (trades, signings, cuts) that would occur in the interim."

Former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement was listed as the league's lead lawyer for the appeal.

Nelson's ruling wasn't a surprise, given her questioning of NFL attorney David Boies during an April 6 hearing and her 89-page order that "enjoined" the lockout -- legal jargon for stopping it. She wrote another 20 pages in her denial Wednesday, declaring the public's interest in the resumption of league operations.

The ruling means the league has no rules in place, shelved since the collective bargaining agreement ended March 11 and the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 was imposed shortly afterward. Nelson said that needn't be the case.

The judge said her order doesn't "obligate the NFL to enter into contracts" or oversee the league's "non-lockout conduct in general." She suggested the NFL "make a decision about how to proceed and accept the consequences" of that choice and said she saw no evidence of "injury" to the league from her order that the lockout be lifted.

Nelson used the league's own steps against it, citing this week's draft, the April announcement of the 2011 schedule and even Commissioner Roger Goodell's proclamation that the NFL intends to play the full 16 games and the playoffs.

Nelson also pointed to the contract tenders that teams issued to restricted free agents in March before the lockout, "treating them as if the league intended to operate with the 2010 rules in place."

Whether that includes free agency or other rules drawn up even as the draft gets under way Thursday was anyone's guess. Bears safety Chris Harris tweeted: "With lockout lifted. Owners have to open doors. Its impossible to start the NEW LEAGUE YR without Free Agency."

And agent Drew Rosenhaus tweeted: "Time to get busy! Let's work!"

Quinn, lead lawyer for the Brady class, addressed the possibility that the NFL might hold off on the start of its league year in an email to the NFL Network.

"They would be in violation of court order, which often is followed by being held in contempt of court," Quinn wrote. "Not a good thing for the league."

The NFL 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 also was 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 such as franchise and transition tags that help the league maintain competitive balance.

Goodell, during an earlier pre-draft 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 doesn't violate antitrust laws.

Nelson agreed.

"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 now will 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, although 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.

All of this played out while teams are preparing for Thursday's draft. Most players again stayed away from team headquarters, working out on their own as the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 plays out in court. Two Washington Redskins players showed up at their facility, another rather fruitless visit.

"What we're looking for is a little clarity as far as what the rules are, so we can operate on the same page," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "So we'll just have to wait and see what those rules are."

Detroit defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said he hadn't heard about any players visiting Lions headquarters.

"Until guys know they can get some work done at that facility, they're just going to work out on their own and take a wait-and-see approach," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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