NFL players and owners at impasse as judge's decision awaited

By Gene Cherry

SALVO, North Carolina (Reuters) - The labor dispute between NFL players and owners appeared at an impasse on Thursday as both sides waited for a federal judge's ruling on the players' request to lift a league-imposed lockout.

Four days of court-supervised mediation were adjourned on Wednesday until May 16 without an agreement on a dispute that could wipe out a season of America's most popular sport.

The ruling by Judge Susan Richard Nelson, expected to be made on April 25, could be a significant bargaining chip for either the players or owners in their dispute, according to several legal experts.

But even if the judge grants the injunction it would not result in an immediate end to a lockout, now in its 41st day, as a stay of her decision would likely be sought by the losing side while it appeals.

That could lengthen the legal process of the dispute and affect preparations for the upcoming NFL season.

High profile quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees were among nine NFL players who asked in March for the injunction as part of a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the NFL and its owners.

Their filing came after collective bargaining talks between the players' union and the league collapsed on March 11. The union then decertified and the players filed their lawsuit and a request for an injunction. The owners' lockout followed.

Both sides also are awaiting a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board on the owners' complaint against the since-decertified players union. A ruling favoring the owners could bring the sides back to the bargaining table.

A court hearing also is set for Minnesota on May 12 on the NFL players' request for damages in a dispute with the league over $4 billion in television revenue.

Ultimately, the two sides must reach a new collective bargaining agreement and settle a major impasse of how to divide the $9 billion in annual league revenue.

"We're going to do everything we can to make sure we play our full season this year," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who participated in the Minnesota mediation, said during a conference call on Wednesday.

The comments came a day after the league released its complete schedule for the 2011 season. The NFL Draft is still slated for April 28-30.

(Editing by Frank Pingue)