NFL players urged a federal judge Wednesday to deny the league's request to essentially restore the lockout, saying their careers were at stake. Commissioner Roger Goodell, meanwhile, said owners were preparing for every contingency.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson is weighing a request from the owners for a stay, which means the injunction she issued to stop the lockout would be frozen during the appeals process.
The waiting game was on.
"You have to react to the judgment and make sure it's done in an orderly process," Goodell said Wednesday during a predraft event in New York.
The players dismissed the NFL's argument that it risks either violating antitrust laws by coming up with new league rules without a collective bargaining system in place or harming the league's competitive balance by a potential free agency free-for-all.
"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 does not violate antitrust laws.
"There is no reason why the NFL defendants cannot devise a lawful player system, and their complaints about potential antitrust scrutiny are not well-founded where such scrutiny is a reality of doing business," they wrote.
If Nelson grants the league's request, players want the NFL to post a $1 billion bond, roughly 25 percent of player compensation last year. An NFL attorney said the bond "raises significant issues" the league hasn't yet addressed and received permission from Nelson to file a brief written response later Wednesday.
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.
The NFL draft starts Thursday night, but it will be far from normal. The lockout has prevented teams from adding free agents and adjusting their rosters, so their strategy this year is more complicated, not knowing exactly when they'll have a chance to sign or trade for veterans to stock various positions.
The players argued that the absence of free agency this offseason has hurt them greatly.
"Players should be marketing their services to find the right team in which they have the best chance to make a roster, be a starter or otherwise advance their careers," attorneys for the players wrote. "This process requires an extended period of time to play out in a fair manner for all players, and any elimination or compression of this free agency period will lead to a set of scrambled outcomes and harms to different players that cannot be undone."
Repeatedly in Wednesday's filing, the players took an argument the league has made and turned it into their own.
They referred to Goodell's expression of concern that the longer the uncertainty around the 2011 season continues, the worse it is for everyone involved. The players said teams won't be harmed if the judge denies the motion for a stay, meaning the NFL would be back in business.
"This is the only way to preserve the 2011 season announced by the NFL, given the need to sign free agents, to complete the NFL draft and sign drafted players, to plan and to hold training camp, and to plan for the season itself," the players wrote. "Denying a stay will enable the NFL defendants to go back to operating their multibillion-dollar business and making enormous amounts of money, as they did previously."
Matthew Cantor, an antitrust specialist with Constantine Cannon in New York, said he sees the NFL's dilemma as legitimate.
"I think they are between a rock and a hard place, and that's one of the problems with allowing this antitrust suit to continue, rather than collectively bargaining," he said.
Can they work this out? Cantor said he talks to go forward even with the court matters pending. Court-ordered mediation is scheduled to resume May 16.
"I think anything is possible," Cantor said. "You're talking about billions of bucks, where everybody at the end of the day makes out very nicely. It would really defy economic logic for them not to go forward with the 2011 season."
The NFL has said it expects a hearing from the 8th Circuit by early June, though the players said the length and outcome of the appeal is unknown and every day "players will continue to suffer significant harm."
Some players tried to go back to work Tuesday, but most who did were told they couldn't work out at team facilities once they entered the building in one of the oddest days in league history.
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 Tuesday that 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. 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."
AP Football Writer Barry Wilner, AP Sports Writers Jimmy Golen and Jaime Aron and AP freelance writer Gene Chamberlain contributed to this report.