Judge rejects league's request for lockout return

By Simon Evans

MIAMI (Reuters) - An appeal by the NFL to reimpose a lockout on players while they remain in dispute was rejected by a federal court judge on Wednesday, opening the door for a return to work.

Judge Susan Nelson turned down the NFL's request that she reinstall the lockout until their case was heard by the Eighth District Court of Appeal, ordering teams to open their facilities to players who wanted to train.

The lockout was imposed by the NFL after talks on a new collective agreement between teams and players broke down on March 11 with no sign of a deal on how to carve up the revenue from the $9 billion-a-year league.

Late on Wednesday, NFL lawyers turned to the Eighth District Court again asking for a stay. The League said in a statement that they would advice their teams on Thursday how to proceed.

Judge Nelson said she saw no reason why the league should be granted a stay.

"The NFL has not met its burden for obtaining a stay pending appeal, expedited or otherwise. The League has not made a sufficient showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits," Nelson said in her ruling.

Nelson said the NFL's argument that they would suffer harm if the regular preparations for the season returned was undone by some of their previous actions.

"The League's own advanced planning belies the likelihood of any descent into chaos such as they now envision, absent the imposition of a stay," she wrote.

The League's announcement of the pre-season and regular season schedules, the organization of the annual college draft and issuing of contract tenders to free agents were cited by Nelson as indications it was preparing for the season.

The draft is due to begin on Thursday but it remains to be seen whether teams will be able to make contact with players they select -- the lockout prevented any contractual interaction.


In rejecting the NFL's claim of harm if they were forced to end the lockout, the judge cited an April 22 article in USA Today where NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was quoted as saying "we're planning to play a full 16-game regular season and playoffs."

"In order to accomplish this, it appears that the NFL took certain steps, prior to the lockout and the lifting of the lockout, to implement some aspects of the system that was in place in 2010.

"These are specific actions that the NFL has undertaken on its own. They were not imposed by this Court.

"In laying some of the operational groundwork for the 2011 season, Defendants' actions dispel their argument that absent a stay, they will suffer irreparable harm because they are unprepared to resume business operations."

While the judge did not explicitly state what rules or conditions the NFL should resume work under, she said it was "not overly complex" and highlighted previous changes it had made.

Nelson said the League was under no obligation to enter into any arrangements with players.

"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," she wrote.

After last month's talks collapsed, nine players, led by high-profile quarterback Tom Brady, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL and its owners, who responded by imposing the lockout.

The players union, the NFLPA, dissolved itself as a union when talks broke down, allowing the players to turn to litigation.

Goodell this week warned that if the anti-trust suit was successful, the NFL would be radically changed with the draft and the salary cap, two key elements of the league's structure, threatened.

(Editing by Julian Linden/Peter Rutherford)