The day after a federal district judge ruled the league must lift its player lockout, I asked a starting NFL player on Tuesday whether he reported to team headquarters.
"No, I didn’t," he responded via text. "I don’t want to cause a mess."
His intentions were good but for naught. Chaos already reigns across the NFL.
What transpired Tuesday was uglier than a dysfunctional two-minute drill. Even after Judge Susan Nelson granted a preliminary injunction to the Brady vs. NFL plaintiffs that would end the work stoppage, teams clearly had no uniform instructions on how to proceed and whether the order was already in effect.
At least one team (Jacksonville) acted as if the lockout were still in place by shunning a player who arrived at its doors. D’Brickshaw Ferguson and Bart Scott ventured to New York Jets headquarters hoping to start the clock on six-figure roster bonuses that the team owes both early in the league calendar year. Players on other teams didn’t report because they were uncertain as to the rules of engagement.
There were squads that welcomed veterans but refused to allow workouts. Conversely, the New York Giants opened their weight room as if the offseason were already in full swing.
And the bedlam may have only just begun.
The league and players are awaiting word on how to proceed since Nelson ruled that the latter were suffering "irreparable harm" from the league’s six-week lockout. More clarity should come Wednesday when Nelson is expected to rule upon an NFL appeal for a stay that would keep the lockout at least temporarily in place.
If she denies the motion, the NFL then would file an expedited appeal to a higher court hoping for a more favorable ruling. But as acknowledged by NFL general counsel and lead negotiator Jeff Pash, there is a chance that the lockout still could be lifted immediately.
That would result in the start of offseason programs, free agency and the ability to make player trades — potentially even before Thursday’s NFL draft. It also would deal NFL owners a major blow in labor negotiations, as a main source of financial leverage — i.e., trying to starve out the players with a prolonged work stoppage — effectively would end.
Player representatives insist the league year already has begun. Attorneys connected to Brady v. the NFL and the NFL Players Association sent a memo to player agents Tuesday urging the start of free-agent negotiations.
Pash said league and Brady v. NFL attorneys spoke Tuesday about potential labor rules for the 2011 season. Players are likely to push for the same guidelines as in 2009, when unrestricted free agency was granted after four accrued seasons rather than six. NFL owners would favor 2010 rules that limited free agency.
In the meantime, general managers and head coaches are left holding the bag wondering how to proceed during one of the most hectic times of the year with the draft fast approaching.
"We’re waiting for direction from the league as to what we can and can’t do," New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said Tuesday at his pre-draft news conference (per the Twitter feed of New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan). "I don’t know what (Nelson’s ruling) means."
This much we do know: Nelson neutered the league’s legal argument that she didn’t have jurisdiction over Brady v. NFL because of past labor law and a pending ruling by the National Labor Relations Board about whether the NFLPA illegally decertified as a union. In an 89-page ruling, she agreed with the Brady v. NFL contention that not only players but the public interest is being hurt by the lockout.
The NFL is prepared to counter in appellate court, where a three-judge panel would hear its side.
"We believe our legal position is meritorious and will be upheld upon appeal," Pash said Tuesday in a media conference call.
"There is a good deal of uncertainty as to what exactly the final order will be and how the rules will apply. We need to know where we stand on that and where we stand on the stay. Then we can go forward."
Until then, there is no cleaning up the NFL mess being left behind.