MINNEAPOLIS - A federal appeals court agreed Tuesday to fast track the NFL's request to put its labor lockout in place until a new deal is finally worked out.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis set a June 3 hearing, with 30 minutes of oral argument for each side, before Judges Duane Benton, Kermit Bye and Steven Colloton.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson issued her injunction stopping the lockout on April 25 and denied the NFL's appeal two days later. The league appealed to the 8th Circuit, and the same three-judge panel issued a temporary stay of Nelson's order on Friday.
The lockout was put back in place by the owners a few hours later. The 8th Circuit is still deciding whether to make the stay more permanent, until the appeals process can play out.
Under the appeals schedule set up Tuesday, the league's opening brief is due May 9 and the players must file their response brief by May 20. The NFL's reply to the response is due May 26.
The appeals court's approval of an expedited stay gave the NFL at least some relief from the stern rebuke Nelson delivered.
In denying the NFL's request for a stay, Nelson wrote last week that the league "offered little, if any, evidence to directly rebut'' evidence from the players they're being irreparably damaged by the lockout, the key requirement for a decision to lift it.
Nelson also wrote that, without a motion for an expedited appeal, the NFL's argument assuming the 8th Circuit will rule before the 2011 begins "seems unlikely.''
Now the league has just that, theoretically allowing more time this summer after the appeals process is completed for talks to resume on a new collective bargaining agreement.
Court-ordered mediation between the two sides is set to resume before U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan on May 16, after four days of talks last month and 16 days of federally mediated negotiations earlier this year. Little progress has been reported.
The old CBA expired on March 11, when the players broke up their union to file a federal antitrust lawsuit and the league called the lockout that lasted 45 days until Nelson's order.
The lawsuit against the NFL is still pending before Nelson, but the legality of the lockout has essentially become the fight for now, with both sides arguing over whether Nelson has jurisdiction in the case and over the notion of irreparable harm. That claim has been prominent in nearly every court filing of the last two bizarre, bitter months as the NFL has stumbled through its first work stoppage since the 1987 strike.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, speaking Monday on a conference call with Atlanta Falcons season ticket holders, said the NFL "doesn't need this uncertainty and clearly the fans don't need this uncertainty.''
"Hopefully, we can get to the core of the issues, sit down and resolve them,'' Goodell said.
He added: "We shouldn't be where we are right now. We should address these issues far enough in advance and gotten an agreement that makes sense that can address the issues that I think both sides want to get done.''
The first preseason game is scheduled for Aug. 8. Goodell said the NFL does not have a "drop-dead date'' for reaching an agreement to avoid missing games.
"Whether they're training camps, minicamps, signing of players, all of that needs to get done sooner rather than later,'' he said.
A day after Goodell spoke to ticket holders, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees led about 40 players through a workout at Tulane in an effort to stay sharp while the lockout prevents the Saints from training on team property or contacting coaches.