MINNEAPOLIS - The NFL has promised to give its teams guidance on what to do after another stinging rebuke from the same federal judge who lifted the lockout.
Whether that includes rules for free agency, the NFL draft that begins Thursday night or simply whether players can talk with their coaches was anyone's guess.
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. She dismissed the NFL's argument that she didn't have jurisdiction and that it's facing irreparable harm because of her decision 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.
And yet chaos there may be, perhaps as early as Thursday, the first day of the NFL draft.
James Quinn, a lawyer for the players, said free agency the biggest immediate question for owners and players alike should start immediately. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league is "evaluating the district court's decision" and 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."
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.
The judge acknowledged her decision will be appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, and Aiello said that step was being taken immediately. The appellate court is viewed as a more friendly venue to businesses like the league than the federal courts in Minnesota.
"We believe there are strong legal and practical reasons that support a stay and that the Court of Appeals should have an opportunity to address the important legal issues that will be presented," Aiello said.
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."
What the NFL will do Thursday was anyone's guess, though Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy suggested earlier the 2010 rules might be used.
"What we would probably do if Judge Nelson and the 8th Circuit deny our request for a stay would be play under the same rules that we had last year," Murphy said Tuesday. "It's 2010 rules, those were agreed to by the players in the collective bargaining agreement, I think that's probably the rules that make the most sense."
Bears safety Chris Harris put it this way on his Twitter feed: "Owners have to open doors. Its impossible to start the NEW LEAGUE YR without Free Agency."
And agent Drew Rosenhaus tweeted: "Time to get busy! Let's work!"
The NFL had argued that Nelson had no jurisdiction and that she shouldn't make a decision while a complaint of bad-faith negotiation against the players was still pending with the National Labor Relations Board. The league also said it shouldn't be subject to some of the antitrust claims leveled by the players with the collective bargaining deal barely expired.
The judge shot all of those down and said the antitrust arguments in a still-pending lawsuit led by Tom Brady, Drew Brees and others have not been aired and are therefore not up for discussion yet.
"There is no injunction in place preventing the NFL from exercising, under its hoped-for protection of the labor laws, any of its rights to negotiate terms and conditions of employment, such as free agency," she wrote. "The Eighth Circuit will not even be addressing, much less ruling on, player restraints, free agency, etc., for the simple reason that this court did not rule on those issues."
The league's plea to Nelson for the stay also was based on a purported fear that an immediate lifting of the lockout would result in a free agency free-for-all that could create a mess that would be difficult to undo should a new collective bargaining agreement lead to different rules.
Nelson called that an "incorrect premise." She insisted that her order was simply an end to the lockout.
The two sides had 16 days of talks with a mediator earlier this year, and four more with a federal magistrate that were ordered up by Nelson. Little progress has been seen, and the two sides are scheduled to meet again May 16.