Uncertainty abounds day after judge lifts NFL lockout


A day after the NFL lockout is lifted, Charlie Batch, right, and Ryan Clark try to report to the Pittsburgh Steelers training facility. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
April 26, 2011

With the NFL lockout lifted and a workout bonus to be earned, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander was at the door of Redskins Park headquarters shortly before 9 a.m. Tuesday, eager to hit the weight room and get some help from the team’s strength and conditioning coaches.

That’s where he met Washington Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen, who sent Alexander home after one of those brief, matter-of-fact conversations that took place at NFL team facilities across the country Tuesday. It wasn’t hostile. It was just business — labor and management trying to make the best of a difficult situation that is now completely beyond their control.

“I wasn’t going to have an argument with him and there was no point of sitting in the lobby,” Alexander said. “So I left.”

That scene was repeated in New York and Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo, Chicago and Charlotte, as players in ones and twos and threes trickled to NFL parks, only to be politely turned away.

A federal judge’s order Monday lifting the six week-old lockout sowed mostly confusion about whether the sport really had reopened for business, uncertainty that threatened to overshadow the NFL’s premier offseason event: the annual draft that begins Thursday night in New York.

With little guidance from U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, a league that prides itself on order and regimentation found itself with essentially no rules, widely conflicting interpretations of the new status quo and no public plan for what happens next.

Indeed, the players themselves filed legal documents asking Nelson for clarification of the 89-page ruling she issued Monday evening, which awarded them a preliminary injunction and ended the shutdown. The NFL sought a stay of that ruling late Monday night, and Nelson gave the players until Wednesday to reply.

“Our position is there’s no lockout,” James Quinn, an attorney for the players, said in a telephone interview from his office in New York. “In our view, the league year [which coincides with the opening of the free agent market] should start and we should go forward.”

But the league wasn’t ready for that.

“We are going to proceed in an orderly way that is fair to the teams and players and complies with court orders,” Greg Aiello, the NFL’s senior vice president of public relations, said in a written statement. “Players are being treated with courtesy and respect at club facilities. We do not believe it is appropriate for football activities to take place until there are further rulings from the court.”

Nelson, based in St. Paul, Minn., ruled Monday that the lockout is improper because the players are no longer represented by a union and said the shutdown is causing them irreparable harm. She rejected the NFL’s arguments that federal labor law prohibited her from granting the injunction request and that she should wait for the National Labor Relations Board to complete a separate investigation.

Despite their decisive victory, an attorney for the plaintiffs asked Nelson in a letter Monday to clarify what she meant when she used the phrase the “lockout is enjoined.” In other words, the players wanted to know, what happens next? Under what system should the game commence?

“That’s a good question,” said Gary Roberts, a professor in sports and antitrust law at Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis. “The judge’s order doesn’t really tell them anything. . . . Nobody knows what it means. . . . We don’t know the work rules, timetables, restrictions on free agent signings or trades.”

Roberts predicted “chaos” if neither Nelson nor the appeals court grants the stay. The NFL acknowledged in its motion asking for the delay that it could implement last year’s rules, a new set of rules entirely or allow unrestricted free agency — basically allowing players to sell themselves to the highest bidder. All of those, it contended, would be problematic because the league has no collective bargaining agreement in place, and the players could challenge any new rules in their antitrust lawsuit against team owners.

That pact with players expired March 11, the same day the players decertified their union and filed an antitrust lawsuit against the owners, who locked them out the next day. The main issue between them is how to divide the NFL’s $9.3 billion in annual revenues. If Nelson rejects the league’s request for a stay of the injunction, the NFL next would seek one from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.

“[Monday threw] things into a temporary state of confusion,” Roberts said. “At the end of the day, the 8th Circuit will decide the issue. . . . For a couple of days, we’re in limbo.”

“The league has a clearer slate with the 8th Circuit,” added Gabriel Feldman, the director of the sports law program at Tulane University. “We’ve already seen Judge Nelson has rejected some of the league’s arguments and accepted the players’ arguments. It’s still possible the league could get a stay from Judge Nelson, but the deck seems stacked against it. There is a better chance of the league getting a stay from the 8th Circuit.”

Other legal experts said it’s unlikely that Nelson would grant the stay pending the appeal. They said she might award a few days delay to allow the NFL to establish rules that would govern trades, free agency and the like. But it could be several days or as long as a couple of weeks before the appeals court decides the matter — which means the league could be in this awkward limbo for some time.

Quinn, the players’ attorney, said he expected the league to begin allowing free agents to sign with teams quickly.

“There’s no reason why they can’t do it in 24 hours,” Quinn said in Tuesday’s interview, adding that he planned to have a conversation with NFL officials about the possible opening of the free agent market.

Meanwhile, some players tried to return to work Tuesday, in some cases encouraged by their agents. “For guys dealing with workout bonuses and in the cities [where their teams are based], we encouraged them to go,” said Jason Chayut of Sportstars Inc., which represents roughly 80 NFL players. “We told them there’s no downside in going in. At least you can say you made the effort, but in all likelihood, you’ll be sent home.”

Chicago Bears place kicker Robbie Gould wrote on Twitter that he “walked into the facility for a workout and was told I couldn’t work out until clarification comes.”

Allen also told Redskins wide receiver Anthony Armstrong that he could not work out at the team’s Ashburn campus. Armstrong said he asked if he could pick up some cleats and Allen ushered him to his locker.

“I still had a locker, so that’s a good thing,” Armstrong said.

Alexander said Allen told him he wanted the situation resolved quickly, just like everyone else. “Everyone wants to get back to football as bad as everyone else,” Alexander said. “It’s draft time and this is hanging over everyone.”

Staff writer Amy Shipley contributed to this report.

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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