Minnesota Vikings Hall of Fame football player Carl Eller, who represents former players. (Photo: AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The NFL is a long way from playing football again — even if players are welcomed back to work with no lockout to stop them.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson granted the players' request for an injunction to lift the lockout on Monday, ending the NFL's work stoppage in its 45th day but prompting an immediate notice from the league that it will appeal.
And players? They were told to show up ready for work — or workouts — on Tuesday.
Carolina Panthers kicker John Kasay was holding a sheet of paper when he arrived at Bank of America Stadium on Tuesday morning. Kasay, who served as the team's union player representative before decertification on March 11, spent about 10 minutes inside the facility.
Asked why he showed up, Kasay said: "We're just walking through the process." He declined to answer further questions.
Bills safety George Wilson confirmed that the NFLPA emailed players after Nelson's ruling suggesting they show up at team facilities. He said players were told if they are denied access that teams would be in violation of the judge's ruling.
"We have received inquiry from a number of players and agents. We have simply responded and told them we don't see anything wrong with it," NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah said in a text message to The Associated Press. "Players are organizing stuff on their own."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said any player who shows up at team facilities will be allowed in and "treated courteously and with respect."
"As soon as Judge Nelson lifted the lockout this afternoon, a number of my teammates called and asked me if they could return to work," Browns linebacker Scott Fujita said. "Basically, I told them I don't see why not."
Others weren't ready to go that far.
"The ruling created more questions than answers," said Kyle Vanden Bosch, a Detroit Lions player representative. "It seems like the dust still has to settle over the next couple of days."
Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, a free agent and one of the nine NFL players who are plaintiffs in the still-pending antitrust lawsuit against the league, said he was assured by NFLPA leadership that liability should not be a concern.
"We should feel free to try to get workouts in and try to resume any sort of normalcy that we had before," Leber said.
Things will be anything but normal — Leber called it the "Wild West" — for a while.
The NFL has filed a notice of appeal questioning whether Nelson exceeded her jurisdiction, seeking relief from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. It also wants Nelson to put her ruling on hold to let the appeals process play out.
If the injunction is upheld, the NFL must resume business in some fashion.
It could invoke the 2010 rules for free agency, meaning players would need six seasons of service before becoming unrestricted free agents when their contracts expire; previously, it was four years. The requirement for restricted free agents would be four years rather than the three years before 2010. There also was no salary cap in 2010, meaning teams could spend as much — or as little — as they wanted.
All of this was in the background for this week's draft, which has a weird feel as teams prepped for picks without free agency or the ability to swap personnel.
Jim Quinn, an attorney for the players, said the pressure is on the league.
"They better act quickly, because as of right now there's no stay and, presumably, players could sign with teams," Quinn said. "There are no guidelines as of right now, so they have to put something in place quickly."
Nelson's ruling was another rebuke of the NFL in the federal courts in Minnesota, which was established years ago as the venue for the league's collective bargaining system. Three weeks ago, NFL attorney David Boies suggested to Nelson that she shouldn't have jurisdiction over a dispute with an unfair bargaining accusation against the players pending with the National Labor Relations Board.
In her ruling, Nelson rejected that contention and recognized the NFL Players Association's decision to "de-unionize" as legitimate because it has "serious consequences" for the players.
Nelson even referenced her colleague, U.S. District Judge David Doty, who has frequently ruled for the players in the past. Not only did she declare that players are likely to suffer harm by the lockout, a legal requirement for granting the injunction, Nelson wrote they're already feeling the hurt now.
She cited their short careers, arguing that monetary damages wouldn't be enough relief.
What Nelson didn't do, however, was tackle the issue of the antitrust lawsuit filed last month when the union broke up. That, she wrote, "must wait another day."
In an opinion piece posted late Monday on the Wall Street Journal's website, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote that Nelson's ruling "may significantly alter professional football as we know it. ... By blessing this negotiating tactic (recognizing the players' right to dissolve their union), the decision may endanger one of the most popular and successful sports leagues in history."
Owners imposed the lockout after talks broke down March 11 and the players disbanded their union.
Nelson heard arguments on the injunction at a hearing on April 6 and ordered the two sides to resume mediation while she was considering her decision. The owners and players, who failed to reach consensus after 16 days of mediated talks earlier this year, met over four days with a federal magistrate but did not announce any progress on solving the impasse.
They are not scheduled to meet again until May 16, four days after Doty holds a hearing on whether players should get damages in their related fight with owners over some $4 billion in broadcast revenue.
With appeals expected, the fight seems likely to drag on through the spring. The closer it gets to August, when training camps and the preseason get into full swing, the more likely it becomes that regular-season games could be lost.
In a statement, the NFL expressed confidence in its appeal.
"But we also believe that this dispute will inevitably end with a collective bargaining agreement, which would be in the best interests of players, clubs and fans," the NFL said. "We can reach a fair agreement only if we continue negotiations toward that goal."
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said players were eager to resume court-ordered mediation to resolve the fight.
"My hope is really is that there's somebody on the other side who loves football as much as our players and fans do," he said.