Commissioner Roger Goodell is surrounded by media at a predraft event in New York. The players urged a federal judge to deny the league's request to essentially restore the lockout, saying their careers are at stake. Late Wednesday night, the judge refused to delay the enforcing order to lift the lockout. (Richard Drew/AP)

A federal judge in Minnesota Wednesday rejected the NFL’s request that she delay implementation of her decision to lift the league’s lockout of its players.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson’s ruling, issued late Wednesday night, does not necessarily mean that the sport will be back in business immediately, as Nelson ordered Monday when she granted the players’ request for a preliminary injunction to end the NFL’s shutdown.

That’s because the NFL will now head to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit seeking a stay of Nelson’s injunction. According to Greg Aiello, the NFL’s senior vice president of public relations, the league’s request to the appellate court for a stay of the injunction was to be filed late Wednesday night. The league planned to advise teams Thursday morning how to proceed, Aiello said in a written statement.

“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. “We have asked the Court of Appeals to consider on an expedited basis both our request for a stay and the appeal itself.”

Several legal experts said this week that the league has a better chance of winning a stay at the higher court.

It is unclear how long it will take that court to rule. It also is not clear what will happen in the meantime.

“The NFL has not met its burden for obtaining a stay pending appeal, expedited or otherwise,” Nelson wrote in the 20-page order she released Monday night. She wrote that the league had not demonstrated it would suffer irreparable harm without a stay of the injunction, and that the potential loss of the 2011 season as a result of the lockout represents irreparable harm for the players.

“The league has not made a sufficient showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits,” Nelson also wrote. “. . . This court’s order simply enjoined the lockout. Defendants are under no obligation to enter a new contract with any player. Conversely, the players face the real and immediate harm of a lost season in a typically short professional career. Finally, the public interest in enforcing the Sherman Act and in considering the wide-scale ramifications of a lost football season to the public weighs in favor of denying the NFL’s motion for a stay.”

The NFL’s team owners locked out players on March 12, a day after the players dissolved their union and filed an antitrust lawsuit against owners. Nelson’s order to lift the lockout created widespread confusion across the NFL on Tuesday. Some players tried to return to team facilities but were turned away.

“Stay denied. Football granted,” George Atallah, assistant executive director of external affairs for the dissolved players’ union, wrote on Twitter after Nelson’s ruling was issued Wednesday night.

James Quinn, an attorney for the players, said in an e-mail: “The lockout has been lifted. Training facilities and free agent signing should commence immediately. Otherwise, the League and the clubs will be in violation of a court order.”

The league has said that football-related activities, including free agent signings and trades of players, should not resume until the issue of a stay is resolved.

If the league is unable to hold off Nelson’s injunction via the appeals court, the sport would begin operating again. Free agent signings and trades of players could resume. The league would have to put rules in place governing free agency. Sources previously have said the NFL likely would use last season’s rules, which did not include a salary cap.

In her ruling Wednesday, Nelson said the NFL must decide what to do about free agency.

“This court’s order does not obligate the NFL to enter into contracts, nor does it proscribe the league’s non-lockout conduct in general,” Nelson wrote. “Like any defendant in any lawsuit, defendants themselves must make a decision about how to proceed and accept the consequences of their decision.”

If the NFL does get a stay, the sport’s shutdown would again be in effect pending the league’s appeal of Nelson’s ruling on the lockout. Teams would remain prohibited from contacting players, signing free agents and trading players. The sport’s drug-testing program would not be in effect.

The NFL argued in its request for a stay that it would be irreparably harmed without a stay. In their reply, the players’ attorneys asked to require the league to post a $1 billon bond if the NFL was given a stay of the injunction. They said that amount is 25 percent of the players’ compensation last year, and is appropriate given the harm the players are suffering and damages the owners may have to pay when the litigation ends.