Could be weeks before ruling on NFL injunction

DeMaurice Smith leaves the Federal Courthouse in St. Paul, Minn. (Andy King/AP Photo)

UPDATE: It will be a couple weeks at least before we know if a St. Paul judge orders the NFL to lift its lockout. In the meantime, Judge Susan Richard Nelson urged the league and players to resume negotiations, but the prospects of that happening seemed dim, based on what attorneys for the two sides told reporters immediately after their hearing ended.

The players' lawyers said they were open to talking about settling their anti-trust lawsuit. The owners' lawyers said they want to resume talks on a full collective bargaining agreement. In other words, they remain on different pages.

The players won't go back into CBA talks because it will make it look like they are again a union, and all of their legal leverage comes from the fact that they have decertified and thus can bring an anti-trust suit against the league.

Nelson said it would take "a couple of weeks" for her to make a fair evaluation of the two sides' arguments and said both face risk from the work stoppage.

"This is a very good time to come back to the table," Nelson said. "I do hope both sides will consider utilizing the services of the federal court."

NFL attorney David Boies, after facing some sharp questioning early in the day, made similar arguments in the afternoon session but made them far more forcefully and seemed to gain some ground in his argument that the lockout is legal and that federal law in this case prevents the court from issuing an injunction. The players seemed to get the better of the morning session.

Of course, even legal experts won't predict the outcomes of a case based solely on a judge's questions. Nelson has several options now: rule in favor of the players and lift the lockout; rule in favor of the owners and leave it in place; ask for more evidence in further hearings (an idea she briefly brought up today) or order the two sides back to mediation. Today she encouraged  them to talk, but did not force them to.

It doesn't seem that they will, and so, for now, we wait for her ruling as the case continues to unravel.

Prospects for a 2011 season? I don't think the odds have changed at this point. We're still months away from the season and both sides have time to try their legal strategies and still get back to negotiations before games are lost. My initial impression is that they wait for Nelson's ruling, at least, before serious talks resume. They may even wait for the appeals to play out, which could last into June. But that still leaves lots of time to make a deal before games are missed.

What may have changed are the prospects for league business resuming before the draft. If Nelson ruled quickly, and chose to lift the injunction, trades and free agency might have opened up by late April and perhaps the Eagles could have moved Kevin Kolb or tried to bring in free agents. With a ruling now looking unlikely before April 20th or so, it seems that hopes for trades before the April 28 draft may be fading.

We'll have more online and in the Inquirer tomorrow.

Update: Judge Susan Richard Nelson said it would probably take a couple of weeks to rule and urged both sides to return to negotiations.

From earlier:

ST PAUL, MN -- We're in a short break for lunch here in Minnesota, but here's the big picture as I see it so far: Judge Susan Richard Nelson has sounded very skeptical of the NFL's arguments for why its lockout should remain in place.

She repeatedly pressed NFL attorney David Boies on his arguments, at one point saying, "I'm having a hard time understanding why the (anti-trust) exemption would protect a lockout," after the players' union has decertified.

The owners have argued that they still have the anti-trust protections needed to legally impose a lockout because even though players have decertified their union, they did so as part of an ongoing labor dispute. The players argued that after they dissolved their union the league lost anti-trust protections and that the lockout is effectively an illegal boycott of player services.

The players have asked for an injunction lifting the lockout and forcing the league to resume business.

Nelson attacked several of the league's arguments including that she should defer to the National Labor Relations Board and that federal law prevents judges from enjoining a lockout.

She asked far fewer questions of Jim Quinn, the attorney making arguments for the players.

Still, it is risky reading in to judges' questions, which don't necessarily show which way they will rule.

To get an injunction, players would have to prove that they will suffer "irreparable harm" unless Nelson acts now. The two sides have spent little time on that issue, though Quinn said more than 800 free agents and rookies are left "without jobs."

Most of the day has been devoted to detailed legal discussions and arguments, citing both sports law and labor law.

Five named NFL plaintiffs are here: Von Miller, Ben Leber, Brian Robison, Vincent Jackson and Mike Vrabel.

Nelson is expected to take a week or longer to rule and any decision she makes will be appealed, but the final outcome could greatly swing leverage in the dispute.

More later and in tomorrow's Inquirer.