It's been about 17 hours since Judge Susan Richard Nelson ordered the NFL to lift its lockout, but so far business remains closed -- and it sounds like that will be the case until at least Wednesday.
Here's what's happened as of noon today: while some players are reporting to team facilities in other NFL cities, it's been sporadic attendance at best and no Eagles have arrived at NovaCare, which makes sense since even the players' lead attorney said it would take some time for things to be sorted out (more on that below). Jeff McLane is down at the NovaCare complex, and hasn't seen any players yet today. One coach told him that it's business as usual - meaning lockout life continues.
Trades and free agency are still not allowed, and right now it doesn't look like we'll see a resolution of that issue until Wednesday at the earliest. The league is arguing that its request for a stay (basically blocking the decision that blocks the lockout) should be heard before business resumes. Part of the NFL argument is that the owners would suffer more harm by opening up free agency and trades now and having to close it again within weeks -- if they win on appeal -- than the players will suffer by keeping the lockout in place for a couple more months while the appeal unfolds.
The players disagree, but they can't do much to force the owners' hands.
"There’s no legal basis for them to continue to refuse to go forward," said Jim Quinn, the players' lead attorney. "They do what they do. I can’t make them do anything."
He expects a ruling on the stay Wednesday, and sounded willing to wait for it before taking the next step.
"Obviously the judge is going to rule very quickly, so we’ll see what happens," Quinn said. But if the lockout continues much after that, "then we’ll seek appropriate recourse."
Nelson gave the players until 9 a.m. Central on Wednesday to respond to the request for a stay. Obviously she could rule sometime after that. Even if she denies the stay, the owners can then go to the Eighth Circuit court of appeals to seek a stay there. It's not clear if business would remain on hold while that played out. Bottom line: the Eagles still can't deal Kevin Kolb, and there are still several hurdles for that to become a possibility before the first round of the draft Thursday.
Below is an explanation on what happened last night, and what comes next, with some updates from today.
The first court ruling in the NFL labor fight came down Monday night, and it was a victory for the players: Judge Susan Richard Nelson issued an injunction ordering the league to resume business. But it’s not so simple. It will likely be days before the smoke clears on this and we know if trades and free agency really resume – meaning don’t start holding your breath for a Kevin Kolb trade. Here’s what we know as of 9:30 p.m. Monday:
Can teams make trades or sign free agents? Not yet. While Nelson ordered the league to resume business, the owners have several legal options that will still play out. First, they asked Nelson to “stay” her decision – put it on hold while they appeal. The league said Monday night they won’t start a new league year – which opens free agency – until their stay request is heard. Even the players’ top lawyer, Jim Quinn, said it would take a few days for the “dust to settle” and movement to begin.
The league filed for a stay Monday night and asked for an expedited ruling without a hearing.
(Some people seem to think Nelson already ruled on a stay, but that’s not the case. There was no stay request yet because there was no ruling until Monday). Even if she denies the stay – and continues blocking the lockout – owners can also ask for a stay from the Eighth Circuit court of appeals, which is seen as more business-friendly (read: favorable to owners).
What would have to happen for free agency and trades to start up? First Nelson would have to deny the request for a stay. The league would likely then go to the Eighth Circuit for a stay, and they would also have to deny the NFL’s request for a stay. If both of those things happen, the league would then have to draw up free agency and trade rules, since they don’t have a labor deal in place. For example, who would be unrestricted? Fourth year players? Fifth year? It’s not clear exactly how long that would take. This issue is key to the fight over a stay (more on that shortly).
UPDATE TUESDAY: Now that Nelson has given players until Wednesday morning to respond, we're looking at a slightly longer window to see when this stay gets decided. The players believe the order should take effect, but can't really force the owners hands.
It does seem possible that if Nelson denies the stay, she could press the league to open up, though owners would want the appeals court to weigh in too.
To my untrained legal eye, it's hard to see how all of the moving parts could click into place to allow trades before the first round of the draft Thursday if the league refuses to open business.
But even if the lockout is lifted, can’t the owners just drag things out and not sign players? Not if the ruling stands. If they refuse to make moves, it would be a pretty clear violation of the judge’s orders and owners could be held in contempt.
What does this mean for an end to the labor fight and the season? It’s just the first step, though it does help the players. Even though the appellate court is seen as business friendly, they have to offer a certain amount of deference to the original decision. That decision went the players’ way. That said, the appeals court gets to hear the case now, and that could take a month or two to conclude. Whoever wins could gain a huge amount of leverage and force the other side to cave, but we’re probably waiting into June, at least, before that happens.
What’s likely to happen with the stay? Two people I spoke with Monday – Temple sports law professor Jeremi Duru and New York labor lawyer Seth Borden – said they’d be shocked in Nelson issues a stay, since she just ordered the league to resume business. But the Eighth Circuit is a different story. These are just two opinions given shortly after the ruling, but the fact that they were so similar gives them some weight, in my mind.
What arguments can the owners make to get a stay? First, they argue essentially that they might win on appeal. Also, that if the lockout ends temporarily and then a higher court rules that it was legal in the first place, there will be action that can’t be undone. “It will not be possible to unscramble the eggs and restore the parties to the status quo,” the league wrote in its request for a stay. They also say the owners would be harmed – because any rules they imposed would become grounds for an antitrust lawsuit against them. Essentially, that if they are ordered to open up for business, they are being ordered to take action that will result in getting themselves sued.
So what has changed? Not a whole lot. There is the potential that business resumes, but it seems more likely that a stay is issued. For now, everything has pretty much played out as the legal experts have been saying they would for months. If you’re looking for some good news, those same experts have generally predicted that while the fight would last well into summer, it won’t drag into the season, because the players and owners have too much to lose. For right now, though, neither side is losing enough to warrant conceding, so the stand off continues.
What's up with players showing up at their facilities? This is partly about both sides interpreting the situation the way they want. The players say they won this round - business should be back on, and that includes offseason work outs. Some may be concerned that if they don't show up, the team could accuse them of skipping work outs and deny them work out bonuses. But the NFL says everything should still be on hold until they get their hearing on the stay. And, in the league's mind, no "new league year" has started. So technically the NFL believes it has never begun the 2011-2012 league year (which would mark the start of free agency and trades). If that's the case, it would be hard for them to argue that players should be taking part in 2011-2012 work out programs, so the players probably have very little risk in staying away. The Eagles Jeff spoke to Monday night sounded likely to stay away and work out on their own. Winston Justice wrote on Twitter that he was on his way over to Power Train in South Jersey to work out with other Eagles there.