MINNEAPOLIS -- Judge Susan Nelson Monday granted the plaintiffs' request for an injunction to lift the NFL lockout.
But perhaps the biggest development is that Nelson has decided not to stay the decision, which could force the league to open for business immediately.
The league swiftly appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court and issued a statement announcing their intention to request a stay from Nelson. The hope is to avoid the beginning of free agency and offseason programs with the potential that, if the Eighth Circuit rules in its favor, the lockout could be reinstated in the coming weeks or months.
"We will promptly seek a stay from Judge Nelson pending an expedited appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals," the statement said. "We believe that federal law bars injunctions in labor disputes. We are confident that the Eighth Circuit will agree. But we also believe that this dispute will inevitably end with a collective bargaining agreement, which would be in the best interests of players, clubs and fans. We can reach a fair agreement only if we continue negotiations toward that goal."
NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith lauded the judge's decision.
"I'm happy for our guys and for our fans," Smith said. "Today, those who love football are the winners."
James Quinn, an attorney for the players, was pleased by the decision and believes it will stand up.
"We believe that this 89-page well-reasoned decision is totally consistent with prior precedent, governing caselaw as well as administrative rulings on all the issues raised by the NFL Defendants," Quinn said in a statement. "We are confident that this ruling will withstand any appeals."
Players also began responding Monday.
"Today's ruling is a win for the players and for the fans that want to see a full NFL season in 2011," said Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora. "The lockout is bad for everyone, and players will continue to fight it. We hope that this will bring us one step closer to playing the game we love."
Nelson said she was swayed by the players' argument that the lockout, now in its second month, was causing irreparable harm to their careers.
The plaintiffs "have made a strong showing that allowing the League to continue their 'lockout' is presently inflicting, and will continue to inflict, irreparable harm upon them, particularly when weighed against the lack of any real injury that would be imposed on the NFL by issuing the preliminary injunction," Nelson wrote.
Owners imposed the lockout after talks broke down March 11 and the players disbanded their union. A group of players filed the injunction request along with a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the league.
The owners argued it was their right to institute the lockout and suggested Nelson didn't have jurisdiction while the National Labor Relations Board considers an unfair labor charge filed by the league that players didn't negotiate in good faith.
Nelson disagreed, and said the NLRB proceeding shouldn't be used to affect the court case here.
Nelson heard arguments on the injunction at a hearing on April 6 and ordered the two sides to resume mediation while she was considering her decision. The owners and players, who failed to reach consensus after 16 days of mediated talks earlier this year, met over four days with a federal magistrate but did not announce any progress on solving the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987.
They are not scheduled to meet again until May 16, four days after another judge holds a hearing on whether players should get damages in their related fight with owners over some $4 billion in broadcast revenue.
And now comes Nelson's decision to lift the injunction.
"(T)he public ramifications of this dispute exceed the abstract principles of the antitrust laws, as professional football involves many layers of tangible economic impact, ranging from broadcast revenues down to concessions sales," she wrote. "And, of course, the public interest represented by the fans of professional football -- who have a strong investment in the 2011 season -- is an intangible interest that weighs against the lockout. In short, this particular employment dispute is far from a purely private argument over compensation."
If her ruling stands, it is still unclear exactly what happens next. The collective bargaining agreement has expired, so how the league would handle free agency, trades and offseason workouts at team headquarters, all of which were banned under the lockout, remains to be seen.
NFL teams are still operating uner "lockout rules," league sources told NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora. The league has not issued anything telling teams those rules have been lifted nor is anything of that nature expected by team officials until after the attempts at a stay on Nelson's decision are exhausted.
Teams have not been given any rules regarding a 2011 League Year, and thus have no operating guide with which to make trades or sign players. That process could conceivably begin quickly if both Nelson and the Eightth Circuit of Appeals deny a request for a stay.
As of now, there is no mechanism in place for teams to conduct football business. NFL team officials are thus not allowed to contact players or agents. Also, several agents said they would not advise players to attempt to workout or enter NFL team headquarters Tuesday morning -- which would be conceivable in theory with Nelson not ruling on the stay until Tuesday. Additionally, an NFLPA official said he did not expect players to try to report to teams, given that no OTAs or minicamps are scheduled and there is no official business of that sort generally conducted at this point until after the draft. Though NFL clubs would generally be overseeing workouts by players at the facility in a more informal manner.
The NFL even argued to Nelson that stopping the lockout would open all 32 teams up to additional antitrust claims simply for working together to solve the labor dispute. Antitrust claims carry triple damages for any harm proven, meaning hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake.
But with appeals expected, the fight seems likely to drag on through the spring and, possibly, into the summer. The closer it gets to August, when training camps and the preseason get into full swing, the more likely it becomes that regular season games will be lost.
"Tomorrow is going to come regardless of what we do here, so we have to work within that framework," Hall of Famer Carl Eller, a plaintiff, said after one of the recent mediation sessions. "In order to have a season, preserve a season, prepare for a season, those are real consequences."
And the antitrust lawsuit is pending, too, with lead plaintiffs that include MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. The suit has been combined with two other similar claims from retirees, former players and rookies-to-be, with Eller the lead plaintiff in that group.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.