U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson wrote that the NFL "has not met its burden for a stay pending appeal, expedited or otherwise." She dismissed the NFL's argument that she didn't have jurisdiction and that it is facing irreparable harm because of her decision to end the 45-day lockout.
"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," Nelson wrote.
And yet chaos there may be, perhaps as early as Thursday—the first day of the NFL draft.
James Quinn, a lawyer for the players, said free agency—perhaps the biggest question for owners and players alike—should start immediately.
"We are evaluating the district court's decision and will advise our clubs in the morning on how to proceed," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.
Nelson's ruling was not a surprise, given her questioning of NFL attorney David Boies during an April 6 hearing and her 89-page order that "enjoined" the lockout—legal jargon for stopping it. She wrote another 20 pages in her denial Wednesday, declaring the public's interest in the resumption of league operations.
The judge acknowledged that her decision will be appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, and Aiello said that step was being taken.
"We believe there are strong legal and practical reasons that support a stay and that the Court of Appeals should have an opportunity to address the important legal issues that will be presented," Aiello said.
Late Wednesday, the league had no rules in place, shelved since the collective bargaining agreement ended on March 11 and the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 was imposed shortly afterward.
Nelson said that needn't be the case.
The judge said her order does not "obligate the NFL to enter into contracts" or oversee the league's "non-lockout conduct in general." She suggested the NFL "make a decision about how to proceed and accept the consequences" of that choice and said she saw no evidence of "injury" to the league from her order that the lockout be lifted.
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Nelson used the league's own steps against it, citing this week's draft, the April announcement of the 2011 schedule and even Commissioner Roger Goodell's proclamation that the NFL intends to play the full 16 games and the playoffs.
Nelson also pointed to the contract tenders teams issued to restricted free agents in March before the lockout, "treating them as if the league intended to operate with the 2010 rules in place."
Whether that includes free agency or other rules drawn up even as the draft gets under way Thursday was anyone's guess. Bears safety Chris Harris tweeted: With lockout lifted. Owners have to open doors. Its impossible to start the NEW LEAGUE YR without Free Agency."
And agent Drew Rosenhaus tweeted: "Time to get busy! Let's work!"