As of about 6 p.m. Eastern Time Monday night, the NFL Lockout has been lifted by federal judge Susan Richard Nelson when she ruled in favor of the NFL Players and the NFL Players Trade Association and issued a preliminary injunction. The first NFL work stoppage in 24 years has been in effect since March 10.

NFL owners are expected to appeal the decision before Nelson this morning. If denied, they would then go before the 8th District Court of Appeals in St. Louis MO in an effort to seek a stay and to be able to continue the lockout. The NFL believes that federal law bars injunctions in labor disputes.

NFL LockoutAt this time judge Nelson only ruled on the lockout part of the players complaint and did nothing with the accusations of anti-trust violations and other issues between the parties as stated in Brady, et al v. the NFL.

She stated in her 89-page ruling that the players “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.”

Lester Munson, a lawyer who is an ESPN consultant, says that judge Nelson’s ruling is written in a manner making it unlikely an Appeals Court would grant a stay and he expects the lockout to die. He goes onto say the opinion was written for appellate judges and he believes it is airtight.

Historically lower court rulings are upheld unless there is a mistake in the application of the law. That’s what the NFL owners will argue but from what Munson is saying it looks unlikely that they have anything to hang their hat on. Appeals judges aren’t allowed to just substitute their opinion on the case when deciding a stay on appeal and heavy deference is usually placed toward the ruling of the original judge in cases like this. But according to a former NLRB chairman there is no court more sympathetic to employers than the 8th District Court. So I wouldn’t be holding my breath quite yet.

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So what does this mean?

Well I really don’t know. There are reports out there that players from teams are planning to report to team facilities tomorrow to work out. Several Pittsburgh Steelers players have said they are showing up en masse.

Other players are wondering how this affects their workout bonuses and will be calling their teams in the morning seeking payment. While others wonder if they can now get the playbooks they weren’t allowed to have prior to the lockout and can they work with coaching staffs and do their off season programs and OTA’s.

Where does this leave free agency? Can players start to sign contracts with new teams as of now? Are teams now free to trade players? Without a labor agreement what does this do to things like franchise tags and free agency status?

Remember the league played without a CBA from 1987 to 1993. That’s from the end of the last work stoppage until the advent of free agency and the salary cap as the NFL has known for the last decade and a half. And it could do so again.

The league would have to come up with some rules for the season. Rules for free agency, rules for franchise tags if they will even exist and they would also play without a salary cap like they did this past season leaving teams to spend as much or as little as they want on player personnel.

Some predict chaos come Tuesday, as no one truly knows what to expect. We are really in uncharted territory here as far as professional sports leagues and work stoppages go. One thing we do know is the NFL will not start a new league calendar year until their appeal on the stay of the lockout has been heard.

As a fan I hate this more than anything and it’s the major reason I haven’t written on the topic until now. At this time I’ve gone from being pessimistic about an on-time start to the 2011 NFL season to being cautiously optimistic. When things are the hands of judges you never really know how things will turn out until they issue their ruling.