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Judge's ruling on lockout could mean football returns to normal

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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Many NFL players have cleared much of their schedules beginning on Monday. Appointments will be at a minimum. Televisions will be close by and BlackBerry's fully charged.

The same is likely for many in NFL management. The league is preparing for the draft but the attention of all in football will be on a courtroom in Minnesota. One eye on the incoming prospects, the other thousands of miles away.

It's expected that Judge Susan Nelson will rule on the player injunction to lift the lockout this week. Indeed Nelson's ruling could come as early as Monday. So the league waits on tees and needles as the immediate future of the sport is decided once again in federal court.

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Lockouts and mediation; sidewalk press conferences and finger pointing; claims and counter-claims; blame game and name game. This week we could -- could -- see a corner turned on ending it all.

Key phrase is "corner turned." Nelson's ruling is only the beginning of a series of legal maneuvers and strategies that will be deployed by both sides, yet, Nelson's instructions will be extremely significant, and one of the most important moments in recent NFL history, as important as Montana to Rice or the Steel Curtain. Here's why:

If Nelson rules for the players: This is likely the probable scenario but by no means guaranteed. If Nelson lifts the lockout then it's business as usual. Football basically returns to normal. The owners will likely ask Nelson to stay her own ruling and it's possible she obliges but legal experts don't think that will happen.

Power: It shifts to players. They will get paid while the fight continues into higher courts.

Appeal: Hell, yeah. The owners will appeal faster than Deion Sanders' 40-time. This is where the owners could have a better chance than before Nelson since the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is more conservative and business friendly. If the appeals court rules for the owners we're back at the beginning sucking on our thumbs.

"We will then know after the 8th Circuit rules whether or not the league can continue with their shutdown," Gary Roberts, a sports and antitrust legal expert and dean of the School of Law at Indiana University-Indianapolis, told the Detroit Free Press. "If they can, then a lot of bargaining leverage shifts to the owners. If an injunction is issued, ordering the league to start operations again, then an incredible amount of bargaining leverage shifts to the players. At that point, I think the sides will start negotiating again, because then they will understand what their risks and bargaining leverage is."

If Nelson rules for the owners: The lockout continues and there is likely no football for months and the start of the season would be in serious jeopardy if not the season itself. Players won't give in until the money runs out and that's not until the fall (I think).

Power: Shifts to the owners like a fat guy and a pixie on a seesaw. This is particularly true if an eventual ruling on the billion-dollar lockout fund (expected May 12) goes to the owners. They can sit on a pile of cash and wait for the players to fold.

Appeal: Hell, yeah. The players would appeal Nelson's ruling immediately if they lost.

Where does mediation figure in all of this? Neither side believes in it (for now) despite what they say publicly. It will only work when one side is desperate. We're months away from that.

All of this will happen with the draft in the backdrop. Two different sets of futures being determined, both intertwined.

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