U.S. District Court Judge Susan Richard Nelson has granted NFL players their motion for a preliminary injunction, therefore lifting the lockout that was imposed by owners on March 11, according to league and union sources.
The decision is expected to be posted publicly no later than 6 p.m. ET., sources said.
Neither side had an official reaction, pending the official posting by Judge Nelson but the NFL is expected to immediately request a stay of the ruling until it can make its arguments before the United States Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, which is headquartered in St. Louis but also has an office in St. Paul.
A judicial assistant for Judge Nelson, whose chambers are in St. Paul, declined comment on whether the judge has enjoined the lockout, according to the sources. The NFL is expected to release a statement shortly after Judge Nelson's ruling is posted.
The immediate impact of the ruling on the status of an estimated 500 free agent players and other player transactions is uncertain. If the league does not get the court to stay the ruling pending an appeal, the league will have to open its doors for players. The NFL also will have to decide whether to impose a similar system that has been in place under the previous collective bargaining agreement that expired on March 11.
The players had asked U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson to immediately halt the lockout at a hearing April 6.
Players including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning filed the injunction request along with a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the NFL shortly before the lockout began March 11.
Nelson ordered additional mediation between the owners and players' association while she considered the request. The sides met four times with U.S. Judge Magistrate Arthur Boylan after 16 days of failed talks in front of a federal mediator in Washington.
Nelson then gave the sides a break from mediation last week, and they weren't scheduled to reconvene until May 16.
Commissioner Roger Goodell said Friday he didn't believe the labor impasse would be resolved through the courts.
"I recognize people try to get leverage in negotiations, but at the end of the day it's going to come down to the negotiations," Goodell said. "The sooner we get to that negotiation, the better. I think the litigation has delayed those negotiations."
It still wasn't clear Monday if and when the NFL would decide to cancel games.
The tentative 2011 schedule was released last Tuesday and had regular-season games beginning Sept. 8, but it included room to maneuver. The NFL could still squeeze in 16 games with a three-week delayed start by eliminating bye weeks and the week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl.
Executive vice president for football operations Ray Anderson has said it was feasible to play fewer than the normal four preseason games, but general managers and coaches would prefer at least two.
In another ruling expected soon, U.S. District Judge David Doty has a May 12 hearing set on the players' request for damages after he ruled in March that the NFL did not maximize revenues for both sides when it renegotiated $4 billion in TV contracts with the labor dispute looming.
The NFL has also filed an unfair labor practice charge against the union with the National Labor Relations Board. The board could announce in the next four to six weeks whether it will hear the complaint. NFL officials contend that alone would be significant. Eric Grubman, the NFL's executive vice president of finance, said if the board started the process, that would indicate it believed the decertified NFL Players Association was still acting as a union, as the NFL has alleged.
The players' lawsuit was combined with two other similar claims from retirees, former players and rookies-to-be, with Hall of Famer Carl Eller the lead plaintiff in that group.
Executive VP Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead negotiator, has said he felt talks between the league and the retired players were particularly productive, and that the owners remain committed to improving benefits and taking care of their former players.
The league and players disagree sharply on how to divide more than $9 billion in annual revenue.
The owners initially wanted to double the money they get off the top for expenses from about $1 billion to about $2 billion, but that number dropped during the first round of mediation. The players have insisted on full financial disclosure from all 32 teams, and so far the league has not opened the books to their liking.
Other major issues include benefits for retired players and the NFL's desire to stretch the regular season from 16 to 18 games. The NFL also wants to cut almost 60 percent of guaranteed pay for first-round draft picks, lock them in for five years and divert the savings to veterans' salaries and benefits.
More than $525 million went to first-rounders in guaranteed payments in 2010. The league wants to decrease that figure by $300 million, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.