On the same day the NFL partially ended its six-week shutdown Friday morning, welcoming players who showed up at team facilities around the nation, the league bolted its doors once again.
In the NFL’s first legal victory after a week of stinging defeats in federal court, it won the right to reinstate its lockout of players — at least temporarily — and late Friday night, it did just that.
Hours after a three-judge federal appellate court panel granted a temporary stay of the lower court ruling that on Monday had lifted the lockout, Greg Aiello, the NFL’s senior vice president of public relations, said in a written statement that teams “have been told that the prior lockout rules are reinstated effective immediately.”
That means teams remain prohibited from signing free agent players and trading players. Players cannot work out at teams’ facilities or have contact with coaches. The sport’s drug-testing program is not in effect.
The court has not yet decided whether it will keep the stay in place in the coming weeks or months as it considers whether to overturn Monday’s decision, so the NFL’s victory could be short-lived.
But the 2-1 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit means the NFL won’t have to immediately address the sticky questions of how to conduct free agency, trades and other player transactions without a collective bargaining agreement to provide rules and parameters.
“The purpose of this administrative stay is to give the court sufficient opportunity to consider the merits of the motion for a stay pending appeal,” the panel wrote in its brief ruling.
Judges Duane Benton and Steven M. Colloton, who were appointed by President George W. Bush, and Kermit E. Bye, a Clinton appointee, issued the ruling. Bye wrote the dissent. He argued that the NFL’s request for the temporary stay should not be granted because it didn’t qualify as a true emergency, such as a death penalty case.
James Quinn, an attorney for the players, said in an e-mail that the decision was “not unexpected. It is purely administrative. Interesting that one of the panel didn’t even want to grant that!”
Around the country early Friday, players began returning to team facilities to work out, get playbooks and meet with coaches, as allowed by new return-to-work rules established by the league on Thursday to comply with the ruling by St. Paul-based federal judge Susan Richard Nelson.
At least 11 Washington Redskins showed up, some arriving before 8 a.m., as the league took its first steps toward complying with Nelson’s ruling on Monday. Linebackers Rob Jackson and Lorenzo Alexander, place kicker Graham Gano and tackles Clint Oldenburg and Selvish Capers arrived early and DeAngelo Hall, Will Montgomery, Macho Harris, Kevin Barnes, Chris Horton and Kedric Golston also reported.
Players in Pittsburgh, Carolina, Tennessee and other cities also showed up. They had to provide proof of medical insurance to workout but were otherwise free to conduct business as usual.
The appellate court decision gave the league its first glimmer of hope after two resounding legal defeats from Nelson. After ordering the league to lift the lockout in her decision Monday, she had refused to grant the league’s request for a stay of the decision Wednesday night.
The NFL immediately appealed, and Friday’s ruling suggests the league might have found the appellate court in St. Louis a friendlier venue.
The league’s collective bargaining agreement with its players expired March 11, the same day contract talks broke down and the players abandoned their union and brought an anti-trust lawsuit against the owners in federal court in Minneapolis. A day later, the owners locked out the players.
In her ruling, Nelson rejected every argument the league made as it asserted that it had the legal right to lock out players.
Nelson rebuffed the claim that she couldn’t enjoin the lockout because the dispute between the sides arose out of collective bargaining. She denied the league’s request that she allow the National Labor Relations Board to determine whether the players’ decision to break up their union was merely a bargaining trick.
And she declared that the players would suffer irreparable harm if the lockout were not lifted, and that doing so would serve the public interest.
The players filed a 30-page motion Friday opposing the league’s request for a longer stay that would keep the lockout lifted pending the appeal. The two sides have sent a barrage of motions and letters to the court that show increasing legal venom.
“Both sides are really, really entrenched and waiting for the other side to break,” New York University law professor Robert Boland said Thursday. “That’s almost as bad an outcome as you could have. They’re hunkered down in their positions, instead of seeing common ground.”
Staff writer Mike Jones contributed to this report.