A federal judge ordered the NFL and its locked-out players into mediation to help settle an antitrust lawsuit filed last month by players.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson on Monday in St. Paul assigned U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan to serve as mediator in the case. Boylan will meet with representatives of players Tuesday; Wednesday, he will meet with league representatives.

Mediation sessions will then begin Thursday and be held in Boylan's chambers on the ninth floor of the federal courthouse in Minneapolis. All communications in those sessions must remain confidential, the judge ordered.

Nelson signaled she was heading in this direction at the close of a hearing in St. Paul last week, when she encouraged the two sides -- already embroiled in a contract dispute over the fate of the 2011 NFL season and beyond -- to meet and try to find negotiated common ground in the lawsuit.

Attorneys for the NFL and players held a conference call Friday to discuss mediation with Nelson, who is currently deciding whether to lift a league-imposed lockout.

Players "decertified" or disbanded their union last month, after the previous collective bargaining agreement expired and talks on a new contract broke off. Owners responded with a lockout, prohibiting players from working out with their teams, signing contracts or doing anything NFL-related.

The players then filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, accusing the league of being a monopoly and unfairly restricting their ability to earn a living. They asked Nelson to issue an injunction against the lockout, forcing the league to resume normal business and allow the players to return to work. Retired players have also filed an antitrust lawsuit, saying the lockout could hurt their pensions and health benefits.

In her order Monday, Nelson said the mediation will not derail the antitrust suit. The players' request for a temporary injunction remains "under advisement, with an order to issue in due course."

Nelson told the sides last week that they could expect her decision in "a couple weeks."