U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson ordered an immediate end to the lockout Monday, siding with the players in their bitter fight with the owners over how to divide the $9 billion business.
The fate of the 2011 season remained in limbo: The NFL responded by filing a notice of appeal questioning whether Nelson exceeded her jurisdiction, seeking relief from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. Hours later, the league filed a motion for an expedited stay, meaning it wants Nelson to freeze her ruling to let the appeals process play out.
What will happen in the next few days is murky, too.
Players may very well show up at team facilities on Tuesday and it appears they'll be allowed to enter the building, if they so choose.
The players' organization -- now a trade association and not a union -- emailed players late Monday night, advising them they are legally entitled to show up at team facilities Tuesday and that teams are not allowed to block their access.
Bills safety George Wilson confirmed late Monday that the NFLPA emailed players suggesting they report to work Tuesday. He said players were told they should be granted access under normal circumstances and if they are denied access the teams would be in violation of the judge's ruling.
"We have received inquiry from a number of players and agents. We have simply responded and told them we don't see anything wrong with it," players' association spokesman George Atallah said in a text message to The Associated Press. "Players are organizing stuff on their own ..."
Wilson had not heard from any Bills players who said they would report to the facility Tuesday.
"Be advised any player going to work tomorrow is doing so under the ruling that Judge Nelson rendered today," the email said, a league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
"Judge Nelson's court order prevents the clubs from locking out players under contract, so they can show up for work. Unless and until the judge issues an order for a stay [delay of the injunction], the teams will be in violation of Judge Nelson's order if they don't allow access."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said any player who shows up to team facilities will be allowed in.
"If a player comes to the facility, he will be treated courteously and with respect," Aiello said in an e-mail.
However, two league sources told Schefter that the NFL Management Council gave all 32 teams certain stipulations for allowing players into their buildings tomorrow.
The sources said teams were told not to open their weight rooms nor engage in any contract discussions, but to let their players in the building. The league also intends to get security in place for players to come in to avoid any potential confrontations or photo opportunities for the media. The NFL intends to debrief teams again in the morning with further instructions.
"We're in a 'Wild West' right now. Football is back to business, but guess what? There's no rules. There's a lot of positive to that, but there's also a lot of negatives," said linebacker Ben Leber, one of the 10 plaintiffs in the still-pending antitrust lawsuit filed against the league when the union broke up last month.
Nelson's ruling was a stern rebuke of the NFL's case, hardly a surprise given the court's history with the league and her pattern of questioning during a hearing here three weeks ago in St. Paul, Minn.
In a room packed with lawyers, players and league officials, Nelson politely but persistently questioned NFL lawyer David Boies about his repeated argument that she shouldn't have jurisdiction over a labor dispute with an unfair negotiation charge against the players pending with the National Labor Relations Board.
In her ruling, Nelson rejected that contention. She recognized the NFL Players Association's decision to "de-unionize" as legitimate because it has "serious consequences" for the players.
Nelson even referenced her colleague, U.S. District Judge David Doty, who has frequently ruled for the players in the past. Not only did she declare that players are likely to suffer harm by the lockout, a legal requirement for granting the injunction, Nelson wrote that they're already feeling the hurt now.
She cited their short careers, arguing that monetary damages wouldn't be enough relief.