MINNEAPOLIS — Draft day arrived Thursday with an escalating court fight between the NFL and its players, who were being pushed to go back to work even without clear rules on how the $9 billion business is being governed.
The NFL took its fight over the now-lifted lockout to a federal appeals court. With that pending, the teams still wouldn't let players lift weights as they waited for promised guidance from the league.
Attorneys for the players said it was no time to wait. They sent a memo telling players that the decision lifting the lockout "is in full, immediate force." Attorneys Jeffrey Kessler and James Quinn wrote that the league year "now has to begin," that players must be allowed to lift weights at team facilities, meet with coaches "and otherwise perform their jobs."
"It is our view that the NFL and the clubs will be in contempt of court if they do not comply with the order," the memo said.
Ten Denver Broncos players visited their facility and met with the team president for about 10 minutes, told that "everything is on hold" as the NFL figures out how to proceed. Washington linebacker Lorenzo Alexander showed up at Redskins headquarters for a third straight day and was told by his general manager he couldn't work out because the team is "waiting for the appeals process."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said late Wednesday that the league would advise teams Thursday morning on how to proceed.
The NFL Players Association, now a trade group and not a union, accused the league of stalling.
"On the eve of one of the greatest fan events in sports, the players moved another step closer to bringing the fans football," spokesman George Atallah said in an email to The Associated Press. "Owners seem determined to prevent that from happening. The NFL owners are not litigating to protect the game. They're litigating to protect a lockout."
The weird holding pattern arrived just a few hours before the NFL draft, one of the league's signature events. The first round was set for Thursday night, with later rounds Friday and Saturday.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson late Wednesday rejected the NFL's request to put her order lifting the lockout on hold pending further appeals. The league wasted no time in filing its appeal.
In a motion for a stay of Nelson's order filed with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, the league said her decision "blinks reality" and is "deeply flawed."
The NFL complained that the order has forced teams to "produce their collective product" and expose themselves to antitrust claims by the players — claims that if held true can result in treble, or triple, damages. An antitrust lawsuit filed by Tom Brady, Drew Brees and other players is still pending before Nelson, but has not been heard.
Nelson dismissed the NFL's argument that she didn't have jurisdiction and that it's facing irreparable harm because of her decision Monday to end the 45-day lockout at the request of the players.
"The world of 'chaos' the NFL claims it has been thrust into — essentially the 'free-market' system this nation otherwise willfully operates under — is not compelled by this court's order," Nelson wrote.
The NFL said the appeals court is "likely to reverse" Nelson's decision and claimed her injunction that lifted the lockout is "skewing" the collective bargaining process.
Owners and players must eventually reach a new CBA to ensure a 2011 season. The two sides met for 16 days with a federal mediator earlier this year and for four more days under court order, with no signs of progress. The union was dissolved March 11, clearing the way for the legal fight, so a new CBA would presumably require the union to be reformed.
The NFL argued that a stay is necessary to avoid irreparable harm to league operations, even quoting an unidentified NFLPA executive: "If the lockout is lifted and a stay isn't granted, it could be utter chaos."
Without a stay, the NFL said, it would be impossible to "unscramble the egg in terms of player transactions (trades, signings, cuts) that would occur in the interim" before a ruling from the appeals court.
The league has proposed a specific timeline for the 8th Circuit appeal: a written opening argument due May 10, the same due for the players May 24, the NFL's reply due May 31 and a hearing after that "as soon as possible."
The clerk for the appeals court, Michael Gans, said a three-judge panel to hear the appeal had not yet been finalized.
Such a timeline would mean the legal fight would stretch well into June, a month before training camps and only weeks before the first scheduled preseason game on Aug. 8.
In the 23-page motion, the league reiterated three main arguments it unsuccessfully made to Nelson: that she had no jurisdiction while a bad-faith negotiation charge against the players is pending with the National Labor Relations Board; that federal law prevents the court from overseeing cases stemming from labor disputes; and that it shouldn't be subject to antitrust claims with the collective bargaining deal barely expired.
The league said Nelson "brushed aside all three legal obstacles with the simple rationale that the NFLPA's unilateral disclaimer changes everything and renders the labor laws irrelevant." The NFL, citing comments by players Mike Vrabel and Derrick Mason, argued again that the union's breakup was only temporary and tactical and not permanent.
Nelson's ruling was not a surprise, given her questioning of NFL attorney David Boies during an April 6 hearing and her 89-page order lifting the lockout. She wrote another 20 pages in her denial, declaring the public's interest in the resumption of league operations.
League rules have effectively been shelved since the collective bargaining agreement ended on March 11 and the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 began.
Nelson said that needn't be the case.
She suggested that the NFL "make a decision about how to proceed and accept the consequences" of that choice. In saying the NFL could go about its business, Nelson noted that the league had already gone forward with the draft and announced the 2011 schedule.
Nelson also pointed to the contract tenders teams issued to restricted free agents in March before the lockout, "treating them as if the league intended to operate with the 2010 rules in place."
AP Football Writers Howard Fendrich and Arnie Stapleton and AP Sports Writers John Wawrow, Joseph White, and R.B. Fallstrom contributed to this report.