I think that Mike Florio of PFT and Michael McCann from SI -- both lawyers specializing in sports law -- are right in saying that the NFL owners are placing themselves in great jeopardy by not immediately complying with the Federal Court order to end the lockout. You don't mess with Federal judges once they have issued a clear order. No matter who you are, they will come down on you with very heavy penalties including jail time if you disobey them. And yet the league seems to be dragging its feet, taking the position that it can wait until the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals rules on its request for a stay of the injunction sometime next week. Why can the NFL and its owners decide on their own whether or not they will abide by a clear directive from a Federal court? Presumably because they are the NFL and can do as they wish. Based on how Judge Nelson has conducted herself so far, it seems unlikely that she is going to stand for this.
What could happen? As Florio points out, the judge could order Federal Marshalls to arrest Roger Goodell at any time. She could also order the arrest of team owners. Or she could slap enormous fines on them -- fines that would increase every hour they continue to disobey her order, and from which they would have no appeal.
Even more likely, teams could start to break ranks -- which already seems to be happening. The NY Giants are allowing players into their facility to work out this morning, and other teams are talking to agents about free agent deals. Most important, under Judge Nelson's ruling, the NFL is clearly compelled to allow teams to trade players tonight in conjunction with the draft. If, for example, the Eagles work out a deal to trade Kevin Kolb for a first-round pick and Goodell refused to allow it I think it very possible that he will find himself in a Federal prison on Friday night instead of announcing draft picks. As I said, Federal judges do not mess around. They can't -- it's their only source of leverage over the parties who come before them, and if they hold ordinary citizens in contempt for ignoring court orders they have to do the same for well-known public figures.
It's also possible that Nelson could hang back and let the NFL get away with what it is doing so that she doesn't seem to be siding too heavily with the players. She might send out a warning by having one of her magistrate judges call the lawyers representing the league, making sure they know they are treading on dangerous ground. But as Florio and McCann are writing this morning -- and I think they are right -- there is a huge clash being set up here that is worth paying attention to since it may very well impact the draft and so many other aspects of pro football.
One other Bills-related point worth noting. If free agency does open up today, it will almost certainly be under the same rules that were in effect last year, since those were part of the old CBA and could provide the league some protection from anti-trust litigation. That means that players will have to have played in the NFL for six years before becoming eligible for FA, which in turn means that Poz and Donte Whitner will return to the Bills for 2011.