The federal judge who lifted the lockout two days ago dealt another blow to the league late Wednesday, denying its request to put her ruling on hold pending appeals and guaranteeing more limbo for the 32 teams, thousands of players and millions of fans.
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.
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!"
The NFL had argued that Nelson had no jurisdiction and that she shouldn't make a decision while a complaint of bad-faith negotiation against the players was still pending with the National Labor Relations Board. The league also argued that it shouldn't be subject to some of the antitrust claims leveled by the players with the collective bargaining deal barely expired.
The judge shot all of those down.
The league's plea to Nelson for the stay was also based on a purported fear that an immediate lifting of the lockout would result in a free agency free-for-all that could create a mess that would be difficult to undo should a new collective bargaining agreement lead to different rules.
Nelson called that an "incorrect premise." She insisted that her order was simply an end to the lockout, not a prohibition of the player constraints like franchise and transition tags that help the league maintain competitive balance.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, during an earlier predraft event in New York, said he wasn't worried about the state of confusion tarnishing the league's image but stressed his desire to "remove" the uncertainty.
"It's one of the things I don't think is healthy for the players, the clubs and most importantly our fans," he said.
Attorneys for the players had ridiculed the NFL's argument that it risks either violating antitrust laws by coming up with new league rules without a CBA in place or harming its competitive balance by allowing unrestricted free agency.
"If the NFL defendants are faced with a dilemma, they put themselves in that position by repeatedly imposing rules and restrictions that violate the antitrust laws," the attorneys wrote. "Any alleged predicament is of their own making."
The solution, the players argued, is to simply implement a system that does not violate antitrust laws.
"Again, the NFL argues it will suffer irreparable harm because it is now 'forced to choose between the irreparable harm of unrestricted free agency or the irreparable harm of more treble damages lawsuits,"' Nelson wrote. "But no such Scylla-or-Charybdis choice exists here. There is no injunction in place preventing the NFL from exercising, under its hoped-for protection of the labor laws, any of its rights to negotiate terms and conditions of employment, such as free agency."
At an April 6 hearing, Nelson - while pushing both sides to resume negotiating a new agreement - recognized the urgency of the situation and declared that both sides had a lot "at risk."
Nelson's orders have indicated her respect of the public's interest in a settlement to keep the 2011 season on track. Her denial of the stay came long after sunset and long after the courthouse normally closes.
The NFL will now place its hopes with the 8th Circuit, viewed as a more friendly venue to businesses like the league than the federal courts in Minnesota.
The two sides had 16 days of talks with a mediator earlier this year and four more ordered by Nelson with a federal magistrate. Little progress has been seen, though the two sides are scheduled to meet again May 16.
AP Football Writer Barry Wilner contributed to this report.