Just One Path Ahead for the NFL

I'm not a legal expert but it appears to me that Judge Susan Nelson has sided with the players and has for all practical purposes – ended the lockout. That means the Owners have to regroup and decide when it's in their best interests to return the game to the fans.

Regardless of what Monday night's conference call yields from the 32 NFL owners, the league at some point will ask for a stay from Judge Nelson that would keep the Lockout in place until league lawyers appeal their case in front of the 8th Circuit Court in St. Louis. Though that appears to be a slam-dunk, I think owners should instead take a step back. The game is now in their hands and it's clear the fans aren't happy with the lockout.

With the NFL Draft set to open Thursday night and players heading back to their respective teams to report for off season conditioning Tuesday morning, the NFL can continue the appeals process or they could welcome the players back to work.

That is provided the NFL constructed specific rules for 2011. Those rules would be similar to what took place in 2010. Again presuming the 32 owners can agree on the next step, then free agency would begin post haste – possibly as soon as Wednesday. And even if the NFL wanted to pursue a legal fight, hopefully the players will want see the reprieve they've been given and get back to the bargaining table.

Should that play out, the Players for their part would win the short term and leave battle relatively unscathed. And if the NFL does allow free agency to begin and can live with the rules that the 32 Owners impose on themselves, the players should have extra incentive to hammer out a new deal because nearly 500 of them are going to get rich.

This way both sides would win. The Owners would shell out the coin to the veteran players via roster bonus dollars and free agent money. The NFL could take center stage again with a frenzy of signings and deals that would bring back all the fans. That would mean the draft would be twice as exciting and overall the NFL can return to its rightful place atop the Sports world.

In reality, both sides should feel a sense of relief - that despite their combined efforts - they did not destroy the golden goose. And to that, the only way to get a deal done is if owners are paying the players.

And even though NFL Owners were disappointed by Monday's ruling they should not be surprised. At the onset of this round of negotiations (the court talks as I like to call them), it was widely reported that Judge Nelson would rule in favor of the players. I just wish she had done so sooner.

In the aftermath, the fans are left wondering which chess pieces the NFL owners will use or if they'll begin to unravel their internal resolve to break the NFLPA once and for all. It appears that isn't going to happen but the players shouldn't be thumping their chests about that point either. They came perilously close to folding their own tent.

Because long term the players ultimately will get the wrath of the abuse from the rabid fan base when the sport returns to the field. They are the ones that fans go to see on Sundays. The owners are in their luxury suites and away from the fray. Plus true NFL fans aren't going to hammer the owners over this dispute with any real resentment. After all, they are the Billionaires who brought their franchises to their respective cities and pay the freight to keep them in those cities win or lose.

And if there is too much backlash by the fans in some markets, a quartet of NFL franchises in San Diego, Jacksonville, Minnesota and Carolina might just pack up their bags in the middle of the night and move their teams to Los Angeles where the NFL is expected to have a pair of teams by 2014 or 2015.

That aside, the NFL Owners should think long and hard about what's best for the game. Clearly the fans aren't happy and before the NFL risks losing them beyond 2011, they need to look at the positive nature of Judge Nelson's ruling.

The NFL, to their credit, made a bold move just to show their unity to the players. But it might be time to lay down that sword.

If that happens, the players should be grateful they did just that and in turn they need to do everything in their power to work out a long term labor deal that will put all this nastiness behind the game for the next five or six NFL seasons.

Because no matter how you slice it or which side you of this dispute you reside, the apathy that fans delivered since the lockout began, should have made enough of an impression that stupidity and greed will someday bring the NFL back down to earth.

And that's not a place where any one associated with the game wants to be in the short or long term.

Should the Owners throw in the towel?

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