With optimism pervading NFL labor negotiations over the last several weeks, most intimately involved covering the league's lockout assumed that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals would withhold its ruling on the legality of the lockout - deemed illegal by Judge Susan Nelson earlier this year.
Those assumptions turned out to be incorrect, as the Eighth Circuit has ruled - and the ruling favors the league owners, as the lockout is officially legal and will continue.
The timing of the ruling catches most by surprise, again because of that assumption that a ruling would be withheld as long as negotiations were making steady progress. The ruling gives owners an immediate leverage point in negotiations, and will make league commissioner Roger Goodell a bigger factor in the process from this point forward.
If they wanted to, the league's owners could really hit the players hard at this point, even with the impending antitrust suit still on tap. That decision would undo multiple weeks' worth of progress in negotiations - and as the unifying voice of the league, it'll be up to Goodell to convince those owners that want further concessions to hold off with a deal perceived to be very close.
This ruling was expected, and the lockout may eventually be ruled illegal - that chance still exists. For football fans, this is far more meaningful to the status of negotiations than anything else. If both sides have any sense, they'll only work more urgently toward an agreement.