MINNEAPOLIS — The NFL's lockout stays, a federal appeals court ruled Monday. That means the league likely won't get back to business until next month and maybe for much longer.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the lockout can remain intact until a full appeal is heard on whether it is legal. That hearing is scheduled June 3 in St. Louis, and it is before the same panel that issued this 2-1 decision.
The appellate court said it believed the NFL has proven it "likely will suffer some degree of irreparable harm without a stay." It also cast doubt on the conclusions of U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who ruled April 25 that the lockout should be lifted — only to have the 8th Circuit panel put her decision on hold four days later.
"The league has made a strong showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits," the majority wrote.
The decision came on the same day NFL owners and players resumed court-ordered mediation behind closed doors for eight hours. It was the fifth day of talks in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, but the first since April 20.
Neither side would elaborate on the discussions but they planned to return Tuesday morning.
"I think there's still time to (reach an agreement) and still have great competitive football that you all expect," Commissioner Roger Goodell told Buffalo Bills season ticket holders. "But time is running short. It's time to get back to the table and get those issues resolved."
NFLPA president Kevin Mawae told The Associated Press he was disappointed with the decision.
"The ruling in granting the stay of the injunction means that the NFL owners can continue to not let football be played," he said.
The appellate court said it would make its decision quickly, a "circumstance that should minimize harm to the players during the offseason and allow the case to be resolved well before the scheduled beginning of the 2011 season."
Indeed, with training camps just two months away and the first preseason game set for Aug. 8, there is restlessness around the league to go with all the uncertainty.
"We'd like to make progress, but it'll be hard to do. We have to wait to see what happens June 3," Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II said earlier on his way into the federal courthouse.
The 8th Circuit's decision to keep the lockout in place is a likely signal of how the two sides will fare once the full appeal is heard.
The majority opinion, from Judges Steven Colloton and Duane Benton, sided with the NFL. Judge Kermit Bye again dissented in favor of the players.
"The district court reasoned that this case does not involve or grow out of a labor dispute because the players no longer are represented by a union," the majority wrote. "We have considerable doubt about this interpretation"
The 8th Circuit has been seen as a more conservative, business-friendly venue for the NFL than the federal courts in Minnesota. Colloton and Benton were both appointed by President George W. Bush, a Republican; Bye was appointed by President Clinton, a Democrat.
Bye dismissed the conclusions of his fellow judges, just as he did on April 29. And he didn't buy the NFL's argument that it would be unable to "unscramble the egg" — a reference to the chaos of handling player transactions with no CBA in place.
"The preliminary injunction does not dictate the NFL's free agency rules, or any other conduct in general, outside of the lockout," he said.
The majority, however, said that both sides will suffer "some degree of irreparable harm no matter how this court resolves the motion for a stay pending appeal," and then criticized Nelson sharply.
"We do not agree, however, with the district court's apparent view that the balance of the equities tilts heavily in favor of the players," the majority wrote. "The district court gave little or no weight to the harm caused to the league by an injunction issued in the midst of an ongoing dispute over terms and conditions of employment."
Colts owner Jim Irsay suggested that players and owners fine themselves every week after July 15 there is no new CBA.
"Get out of the courts!" Irsay tweeted.
Still in the courts is a separate but related matter. U.S. District Judge David Doty is determining the fate of some $4 billion in broadcast revenue he previously ruled was unfairly secured by the NFL in the last round of contract extensions with the networks to use as leverage in the form of lockout insurance. The players have asked Doty to put that money in escrow and for more than $707 million in damages, too.
The two sides also met for 16 days earlier this year before talks fell apart March 11 and the lockout began. Boylan presided over four days of mediation last month with no signs of progress and is scheduled to host the two sides again Tuesday.
Goodell, executive vice president Jeff Pash and four team owners — Rooney, Mike Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals, John Mara of the New York Giants and Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers — were on hand with their legal team for Monday's session with Boylan.
The head of the NFL Players Association, DeMaurice Smith, and three other lawyers for the players were present for their side. Linebacker Ben Leber, one of the players listed as a plaintiff in the still-pending federal antitrust lawsuit against the league, also attended. Eller and attorneys were there representing the retired players.
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York and AP Sports Writers Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis, John Wawrow in Buffalo, and Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
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