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NFL in 'chaos' after lockout ruling. What happens now?

A federal judge's ruling to lift the lockout prompted a flurry of legal action and lots of confusion as players reported to empty practice facilities Tuesday. What it means for NFL football could become clearer in the days ahead, but for now, the league is in 'uncharted territory.'

By Staff writer / April 26, 2011

In this Feb. 6 file photo, Pittsburgh Steeler Brett Keisel takes a photo on the field before Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas. A federal judge on Monday ordered an end to the NFL lockout, giving the players an early victory in their fight with the owners over how to divide the $9 billion business.

David J. Phillip/AP/file

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In the words of one legal expert, the National Football League has now entered "Bizarro World."

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It is there because federal judge Susan Nelson on Monday issued an injunction against the NFL lockout – essentially saying that the owners cannot prevent their players from reporting to work and, it seems, playing football. The full ramifications of Judge Nelson's ruling are not yet plain. Further legal actions in her court and beyond in the coming days and weeks could add a measure of clarity to the question of what this all means for pro football in 2011.

But what is clear is that the NFL now faces an unprecedented level of uncertainty.

On Tuesday, players returned to their training facilities only to find empty hallways and orders to not work the weights – a situation NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith called "chaos." In an opinion article for The Wall Street Journal, Commissioner Roger Goodell countered that the ruling could "alter professional football as we know it."

Allowing football players to play without a union (which was disbanded when talks broke down) or a collective-bargaining agreement (which expired last month) would lead to league anarchy, he wrote: All players would become "independent contractors" with the power to dismantle league-wide arrangements like free agency, salary caps, and even the draft.

His pronouncement is partly hyperbole, legal experts say, but it aptly describes how thoroughly Nelson has upset the NFL's apple cart. For as long as Nelson's ruling remains in effect, everything from free agency to the salary cap are in play, with the NFL having lost much of its leverage to bring the players into line.

The league's immediate recourse is to try to get Nelson to issue a stay on her own injunction until legal appeals play out. Nelson said she could do this later this week. If she does not, the NFL will hope that that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis overturns or stays Nelson's ruling. The league has already appealed to the Eighth Circuit.

But even if the league is successful in the Eighth Circuit, that process could take time, and if no stay is issued, the NFL would remain in limbo, forced to abide by a ruling it was contesting. Research shows that appellate courts usually reverse sports-related antitrust rulings from lower courts, says Michael LeRoy, a sports- law professor at the University of Illinois in Champaign. But he adds: "Everybody who touches this believes it's uncharted territory."

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