As sports fans and legal nerds try to make sense of the Eighth Circuit's ruling earlier today regarding the NFL Lockout, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1) This is a limited decision. The owners raised several arguments in their briefs. The Eighth Circuit only ruled on one, holding that the lower court did not have jurisdiction to lift the lockout as to players under contract. The Appeals Court suggested that the lockout could be invalidated as to rookies and free agents, but the issue was not yet resolved (see #2)
2) Rookies and free agents cannot start signing contracts. They are still locked out. The Eighth Circuit said, in effect, the following: "The lockout might be invalid as to rookies and free agents, but the lower court has to have a full hearing on this issue." So until and unless the lower court holds a hearing and rules that the lockout is invalid, even rookies and free agents are locked out (unless, of course, the owners voluntarily end the lockout).
[By the way, what would it mean if they could sign? The Eighth Circuit has said that players under contract could be locked out. So a team could sign a free agent, and then immediately lock him out! I suppose this might give teams some certainty, knowing they've signed a particular free agent, but it is sort of a crazy outcome.]
3) The players aren't completely out of options. The Eighth Circuit said that the players are not entitled to an injunction, that is, an order lifting the lockout. But they can still go forward with their antitrust lawsuit, which might entitle them to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. And in theory, they could appeal the Eighth Circuit's ruling, either by way of an "en banc" appeal to the full Eighth Circuit (this decision was made by a three-judge panel) or by an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But that would stretch the litigation onward for months. As to the negotiations...
4) The balance of power has shifted. Over the last week or two, we've been hearing that the League has been meeting with players' representatives and getting close to a deal. The Eighth Circuit's ruling drops a bomb in the middle of those talks. The biggest question I have is whether the owners will try to "claw back" some of the concessions they've made (such as splitting revenue almost 50-50) in light of their legal win today. Still,
5) The best hope for football is a negotiated deal. Yes, the players might take this up to the Supreme Court (and maybe even win). Yes, the owners might have to lift the lockout for rookies only. Yes, the players might win hundreds of millions of dollars in an antitrust suit.
But all of these options take time--lots of time. The best hope for us fans is that the two sides treat today's ruling as if it never happened and keep going with their negotiations. We've heard that they're close. If, instead of pushing across the finish line, they start taking a hard stance in light of the ruling, we will probably be farther from a deal than we've been for about the last three weeks.