Confusion still reigned throughout the NFL on the eve of Thursday's draft, even as U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson tried to clear things up by denying the owners a request for a stay on her decision to end the league's 45-day lockout on Monday.
Technically, the lockout is over, which technically it has been since Monday. Yes, the league season has begun and all 32 teams must open their doors to players or risk being held in contempt of court. However, teams aren't expected to begin signing or trading players anytime soon.
The NFL will turn quickly to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and ask for the same stay to be granted throughout an appeals process that could last into the summer. Meanwhile, Nelson's ruling does not force teams to sign free agents, trade players or complete any sort of transactions.
"Defendants are under no obligation to enter a new contract with any player," Nelson wrote.
In ruling that the NFL hadn't "met its burden for a stay pending appeal, expedited or otherwise," Nelson didn't accept the league's claim that lifting the lockout would cause irreparable harm trying to operate without a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and an antitrust exemption.
"In short, 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.
Nelson also suggested the owners could solve their antitrust dilemma at the negotiating table, writing there is no injunction "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."
While another courtroom loss for the league might not have an impact immediately, this ruling does take the NFL a step closer to playing the 2011 season, which Nelson considered important to players, whose careers are typically short, and the fans.
"Considering the wide-scale ramifications of a lost football season to the public weighs in favor of denying the NFL's Motion for a Stay," Nelson wrote.
Owners and players jabbed at one another via court filings throughout the day Wednesday. When the league argued that being forced to lift the lockout would put it at risk of violating antitrust laws, attorneys for the players fired back.
"If the NFL defendants are faced with a dilemma, they put themselves in that position by repeatedly imposing rules and restrictions that violate the antitrust laws," they wrote.
The NFL, however, argued that without a CBA and antitrust protection, the competitive balance that's vital to its success would be harmed by unlimited free agency and the elimination of the draft in future years.
Meanwhile, teams still preparing for the grind of a three-day draft were left to scramble together contingency plans in the event they're able to sign and trade for players at any moment.
Teams also don't know whether they'll be following rules from 2009, when there was a salary cap and less restrictive free agency, or 2010, when there was no salary camp and more free agency restrictions. They also could be told to follow a new set of rules, which could then be outdated once there's a new CBA.
It's enough to make heads spin from front offices to the league's rabid fan base. And that concerns NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
"It's one of the things I don't think is healthy for the players, the clubs and, most importantly, our fans," he told reporters Wednesday night.
Goodell said the best way to restart normal league transactions without violating antitrust laws is for both sides to return to the bargaining table. The next scheduled court-ordered mediation session isn't until May 16 in Minneapolis.
James Quinn, a lawyer for the players, said free agency -- the biggest immediate question for owners and players alike -- should start immediately.
"We are evaluating the district court's decision and will advise our clubs [Thursday] morning on how to proceed," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.
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 e-mail. "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."
This report includes material from the Associated Press.