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Lockout's end just first step toward unsure season

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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In ruling against the NFL on Monday, Judge Susan Nelson sought to lift the league lockout and return players to work -- which, it appears, will happen and, presumably, soon.

But first things first, and first we must hear from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. In making her decision, Judge Nelson refused to grant a stay of a preliminary injunction -- basically telling the NFL that her decision would not be compromised.

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OK, so then what? Well, now the NFL turns to the Eighth Circuit for a stay, arguing that an injunction is not applicable in a labor dispute. A decision there shouldn't take long. In fact, it could be reached from the bench.

Until that time, however, I've been told that clubs have been notified nothing changes; the lockout basically remains in effect until the Eighth Circuit rules on its request for a stay -- which means no trades or signings prior to Thursday's draft.

“We do not intend to start the league year,” a league spokesman said via e-mail, “until we have had an opportunity to seek a stay.”

If, however, a stay were denied by that court, too, players would return to work, free agency would resume and NFL headquarters would be open for business.

But don't kid yourselves: It won't be business as usual. While Monday's verdict is a victory for the players, what happens next will determine what this season -- presuming there is one -- looks like.

Let's say the Eighth Circuit denies the league's request for a stay and upholds Judge Nelson's decision. Then the NFL would file an appeal, an action most people expect would take a minimum of four weeks to resolve.

In the meantime, NFL clubs would be open for work, players would be back on the job, trades would be consummated and free agents acquired. But, again, it may not be business as usual.

The question would be: Under what rules or guidelines would the league operate in 2011? The anticipation is that it would be under the 2010 rules, which had no salary cap, no salary minimum, limited benefits and free agency after six years instead of four -- rules that favored the owners, not the players.

But at least one source said the NFL may not be bound by collective-bargaining rules here; that it may, in fact, devise a new system under which it operates. That could be a system that is more restrictive to players and, frankly, less beneficial to them.

I'm not saying that happens, but it could. Players would embrace a return to work and the pay checks that come with it, but they may not embrace the conditions under which they play.

Essentially, what happened Monday is that Judge Nelson did what the players and owners could not -- which is to put them back together again. She lifted the lockout, then told management she would not consider a request to put her action on hold pending a decision from the NLRB on a league complaint filed in February.

So that has the NFL seeking relief from another court, and stay tuned. We should know soon whether players are back on the job, back on the block and back on the free-agent market.

What we don't know is that if and when this season resumes what it will look like.

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