Tuesday, after hearing that the league's lockout had been lifted by a federal court in Minneapolis, some NFL players showed up for work.

They were politely turned away.

Imagine the inevitable escalation. Next time the players show up, they will be targeted by poison-tipped arrows and Kenny G CDs. The time after that, they will be scalded by vats of boiling oil and invited to listen to Zygi Wilf recite the Gettysburg Address. Where will man's inhumanity to man end?

Actually, in the court of public opinion, this battle should already be over. The NFL players -- a loose-knit and sometimes dysfunctional group of young men with short-term careers, frequent head trauma and a history of losing that would make the Timberwolves blush -- have whipped the owners the way viral infections whip Joe Mauer.

We all know that the players who reported to work on Tuesday did so for strategic and symbolic reasons. If NFL teams allowed them to meet with coaches or work out, that would provide evidence that the lockout had ended. If NFL teams turned away players, then the owners would look even more petty and imbecilic than usual.

Because we knew this, it is logical to assume that owners knew this. And yet they allowed themselves to be hustled, proving that billionaire owners of sports teams are rarely as savvy as their portfolios would lead you to believe.

Taking the players' side in this dispute is rough. It puts me on the same side as Drew Rosenhaus' smirk, Brandon Marshall's rap sheet, Jay Cutler's sneer and DeMaurice Smith's hat, which I hope came with a really good bowl of soup.

There's not much of a choice, though. You can either side with the players, who are willing to work, and work under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement that made the owners lots of money, or you can side with the owners, who have shut down a game at the height of its popularity so they can afford plutonium countertops on their ninth yachts.

On one side, you have elite athletes who are the faces of their franchises and risk lobe and limb for our entertainment.

On the other side, you have billionaires unsatisfied with massive profits aided by publicly-funded stadiums.

Tuesday morning, Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson tried to enter the team facility to use the cold tub to help him recover from workouts he is undergoing so he can attempt to win games this fall. Tuesday afternoon, the Vikings continued their lobbying efforts to procure a half-billion or more in taxpayer money to build a stadium that would make Wilf even richer.

I'm in favor of a new stadium for the Vikings. I am not in favor of approving one while the owners who would benefit from it are threatening to cancel the 2011 season out of sheer greed.

Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, shouldn't be trusted. He is using this high-profile and highly litigious conflict to raise his personal stock and profile.

You don't have to trust him, though, to agree with him. On ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" radio show, Smith said: "To be in a state where the National Football League is allowing this kind of chaos to occur, I'm not sure it's a great day for football. ... And we're in a world where the owners of the National Football League opted out of a contract that was fine. They went to the Supreme Court to try to stick it to the players and they lost. They tried to keep revenue sharing from happening in 2010 and they lost. A judge ruled that they gamed the TV contracts to lock the players out and they lost. And then they lock the players out and took football from our fans, and yesterday they lost."

Every word of that is true.

The problem with sports owners is, like the Timberwolves' Glen Taylor, they are forced to transition from shadowy worlds where their ruthlessness and back-room calculations gain them competitive advantages, to a world of bright lights and iridescent scoreboards where they are forced to compete with men of similar wealth and cunning.

To get ahead in this public world, they can't undercut their fellow owners. They eagerly settled for undercutting their own players.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com