MINNEAPOLIS — Draft day arrived Thursday with an escalating court fight between the NFL and its players, who were being pushed to go back to work even without clear rules on how the $9 billion business is being governed.
The NFL took its fight over the now-lifted lockout to a federal appeals court. With that pending, the teams still wouldn't let players lift weights as they waited for promised guidance from the league.
Attorneys for the players said it was no time to wait. They sent a memo telling players that the decision lifting the lockout "is in full, immediate force." Attorneys Jeffrey Kessler and James Quinn wrote that the league year "now has to begin," that players must be allowed to lift weights at team facilities, meet with coaches "and otherwise perform their jobs."
"It is our view that the NFL and the clubs will be in contempt of court if they do not comply with the order," the memo said.
Ten Denver Broncos players visited their facility and met with the team president for about 10 minutes, told that "everything is on hold" as the NFL figures out how to proceed. Washington linebacker Lorenzo Alexander showed up at Redskins headquarters for a third straight day and was told by his general manager he couldn't work out because the team is "waiting for the appeals process."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said late Wednesday that the league would advise teams Thursday morning on how to proceed.
The NFL Players Association, now a trade group and not a union, accused the league of stalling.
"On the eve of one of the greatest fan events in sports, the players moved another step closer to bringing the fans football," spokesman George Atallah said in an email to The Associated Press. "Owners seem determined to prevent that from happening. The NFL owners are not litigating to protect the game. They're litigating to protect a lockout."
The weird holding pattern arrived just a few hours before the NFL draft, one of the league's signature events. The first round was set for Thursday night, with later rounds Friday and Saturday.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson late Wednesday rejected the NFL's request to put her order lifting the lockout on hold pending further appeals. The league wasted no time in filing its appeal.
In a motion for a stay of Nelson's order filed with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, the league said her decision "blinks reality" and is "deeply flawed."
The NFL complained that the order has forced teams to "produce their collective product" and expose themselves to antitrust claims by the players — claims that if held true can result in treble, or triple, damages. An antitrust lawsuit filed by Tom Brady, Drew Brees and other players is still pending before Nelson, but has not been heard.
Nelson dismissed the NFL's argument that she didn't have jurisdiction and that it's facing irreparable harm because of her decision Monday to end the 45-day lockout at the request of the players.
"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.
The NFL said the appeals court is "likely to reverse" Nelson's decision and claimed her injunction that lifted the lockout is "skewing" the collective bargaining process.
Owners and players must eventually reach a new CBA to ensure a 2011 season. The two sides met for 16 days with a federal mediator earlier this year and for four more days under court order, with no signs of progress. The union was dissolved March 11, clearing the way for the legal fight, so a new CBA would presumably require the union to be reformed.
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