NFL tells teams, players OK to work again

Associated Press
National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell, right, greets Deion Sanders at an NFL predraft  event in New York,  Wednesday, April 27, 2011. NFL players are urging a federal judge to deny the league's request to essentially restore the lockout, saying their careers are at stake. Goodell, meanwhile, says owners are preparing for every contingency.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
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National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell, right, greets Deion Sanders at an NFL predraft event …

On one of the busiest days of the year for the NFL, teams were plotting not only how to land the best draft picks but just how to let their most-prized employees return to work.

Welcome back, players.

For now, at least.

The NFL cleared the way for some of its basic football operations to begin Friday, five days after a federal judge declared the lockout illegal and nearly seven weeks after it began. Players can talk with coaches, work out at team headquarters and look at their playbooks.

"Everybody's tired of sitting around, laying around," Denver Broncos linebacker Joe Mays said. "We've had enough of that. Now, we're trying to get back to business."

New York Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes said he planned to be at team headquarters.

"I am looking forward to catching up with everyone in the entire organization," Tynes said.

Count Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay among the eager.

"It's always good to see the guys," he said Thursday night.

The San Francisco 49ers were among the handful of teams with new staffs — they hired Jim Harbaugh as head coach in January — who haven't even been able to meet their players.

"It's time to get back to coaching," general manager Trent Baalke said.

Fans, too, are desperate for a football fix.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was roundly booed Thursday night when he first appeared on the Radio City Music Hall stage for the draft. As fans chanted, "We want football," Goodell acknowledged the message, saying "I hear you."

The NFL also was expected to release on Friday detailed guidelines for free agency, trades and other roster moves in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement. That expired March 11, the same day the players' union was disbanded to clear the way for a court fight.

That fight is far from over despite the halting steps back toward football. The league has asked the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis to restore the lockout as soon as possible, hoping for a friendlier venue than the federal courts in Minnesota.

John Hancock, a labor attorney in Detroit for the firm Butzel Long, said he sees the owners in a difficult situation, however. He wondered if the court, generally considered favorable to business and conservative in nature, would back the owners.

"If it was their intent to support the owners' position, they'd have to force employees back into a union. That seems counter to conservative beliefs," Hancock said. "The law is pretty clear that if employees decertify, there is no union. Yeah, it's a trick. Yeah, it's a ploy. But I don't know how the 8th Circuit reverses that. It was a very sharp ploy."

The NFL wants an immediate stay of U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson's decision on Monday to lift the 45-day lockout so it can argue that it should be overturned altogether. The players were told to respond to the league's motion for a stay by midday Friday, and the NFL's reply to that is due on Monday morning.

Goodell said he feared the fight could last for a while. He said he was looking forward to the next round of court-ordered talks on May 16.

"I think that it's important to get back to that," the commissioner said. "That's the type of thing that should happen: real bargaining across the table."

At least now, football activities can take place.

Mandatory minicamps and voluntary offseason practices can begin under rules of the old CBA. Team-supervised workouts will count toward bonuses in player contracts, and players also can work out on their own at team facilities if they have health insurance in place.

The Detroit Lions already have scheduled organized team activities for Wednesday, and the Bears have set a rookie camp for next weekend. Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita said his team is ready to get to work.

"I consider us one of the organizations that will legitimately do the right thing with all this," Fujita said. "Guys who choose to report right away just have to be flexible and realize that if a stay is granted from the appellate court, then we're locked out again."

The league also will arrange for substance abuse and drug programs to start back up, and players can participate in team-sponsored community and charity functions.

Attorneys for the players, who still have an antitrust lawsuit pending before Nelson, said the NFL shouldn't have taken all week to resume football operations.

James Quinn, in a tersely worded letter to NFL attorney Gregg Levy, said the players were tired of waiting and even accused the league of "granting itself a temporary stay" of Nelson's order when doors didn't open right away for football activities.

"I guess if you're a billionaire, you can tell a judge no," said Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, who was at a charity event Thursday in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Now the fight will be taken up by the 8th Circuit. The league even proposed a timeline: a written opening argument due May 10, the same due for the players May 24, the NFL's reply due May 31 and a hearing after that "as soon as possible."

That would stretch the legal fight well into June, a month before training camps and only weeks before the first scheduled preseason game on Aug. 8.

Tony Richardson, a 17-year veteran and a free agent, said he still felt uncertainty.

"It's still a situation where guys cannot be sure what's next, but I think we're headed in the right direction," he said.

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AP Football Writers Arnie Stapleton and Barry Wilner and AP Sports Writers Jon Krawczynski, Tom Canavan, Michael Marot, Janie McCauley, Tom Withers, Larry Lage and R.B. Fallstrom contributed to this report.

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