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NFL fans chant for football, boo the commissioner, and hope

By Steve Politi, Special to CNN
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at last night's NFL draft with No. 1 pick Cam Newton
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at last night's NFL draft with No. 1 pick Cam Newton
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NFL fans boo commissioner and chant for football at NFL draft
  • League's labor battle is being fought in the courts
  • Players have won early legal victories, which may be helping them stay united
  • A test of their unity could come in September, when they'd start missing paychecks
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Editor's note: Steve Politi is a sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, who covers the New York Giants and New York Jets

(CNN) -- The chants started from the upper reaches of Radio City Music Hall, but when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stepped to the podium to begin the NFL draft on Thursday night, it was clear the fans had more on their minds than the first pick.

"We want football! We want football! We want football!"

Those football fans were speaking for millions across the country, all wondering when their sport will get paroled from the labor impasse that has imprisoned it over the past two months.

SI.com: NFL draft round 2 analysis | Round 1 aftermath

Finally, there are signs that might be happening. The NFL announced Thursday, after getting sacked twice in the courts this week, that offseason business resumes today. Weight rooms are open for workouts again. Coaches can hand out playbooks. Players can receive treatment.

Read the NFL's statement

"Football's back," union chief DeMaurice Smith declared.

Well ... not quite. The NFL and its players still have significant hurdles to clear before reaching an agreement that will finally end the labor dispute that has hovered over the sport for months. And, if an appeals court rules in the NFL's favor, the league could go right back into shutdown mode.

But the latest news is potentially a step toward a full, uninterrupted football season. Here is a quick primer on the latest developments:

How did we get to this point?

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson issued a strong rebuke of the owners Monday, ordering an immediate end to the lockout in an 89-page ruling. The league requested the judge to freeze her ruling, and in a decision that surprised no one, she declined.

In her ruling, Nelson wrote that continuing the lockout "is presently inflicting, and will continue to inflict, irreparable harm upon (the players), particularly when weighed against the lack of any real injury that would be imposed on the NFL by issuing the preliminary injunction."

It was the arguably the biggest victory ever for the NFL players, long regarded as the weakest and most often trampled-upon union in professional sports. The owners, who want a bigger slice of the league's $9.3 billion revenue pie, had no choice but to resume business.

"Clubs are free to contact players immediately to advise them of the hours that the facility will be open for their use, to schedule medical and rehabilitation activity, and to arrange meetings with coaches or related activity, such as film study or classroom work," the NFL said in its statement.

How did the NFL respond?

Bitterly. In a letter to The Wall Street Journal, Goodell predicted mass chaos if the players win this fight -- while conveniently ignoring the detail that it was the owners who started it by opting out of their collective bargaining agreement with the players.

"Rather than address the challenge of improving the collective-bargaining agreement for the benefit of the game," he wrote, "the union-financed lawsuit attacks virtually every aspect of the current system including the draft, the salary cap and free-agency rules, which collectively have been responsible for the quality and popularity of the game for nearly two decades."

Read Goodell's letter to The Wall Street Journal

Is all that true? More likely, it's a stance for negotiating . The players are the ones who were comfortable in the current system -- the owners opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement and asked the players to give back $1 billion of their slice of the revenue pie to help finance stadium construction.

So where does the case go now?

To the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. The appellate court will rule on the request for a stay, and to prevail, the NFL must show that it will be irreparably harmed if a stay isn't granted. A ruling on the appeal is expected to take at least two months.

The onus is now on the owners to prove that the current system harms them -- a hard sell, considering the unprecedented success of professional football and the billion-dollar valuation of the teams. The league's best bet was always to dig in and hope for the players to fracture and cave; now, with legal rulings on their side, the players have more reason than ever to stay united.

Remember: Players make the bulk of their salary during the season. Most won't really notice the financial hit until they start missing checks in September.

What happens if a stay isn't granted?

Get ready for open season. The league would need to immediately put in place interim rules governing free agency, rookie signings and trades. Once it does, the teams would be free to begin signing players, even as the Court of Appeals process continues.

The NFL Network's Jason La Canfora reported Thursday that all of that could begin as early as Monday. Philadelphia Eagles fans are most interested in that: Their team is preparing to trade backup quarterback Kevin Kolb.

What does this mean for the newly drafted players?

They're in the same boat as the current players -- they'll have to wait and see. But unlike the established players, the incoming rookies don't have the same experience with an NFL team. The longer the labor issues drag out, the steeper the learning curve might be for the newcomers.

Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, the No. 1 pick of the Carolina Panthers, has a lot to prove. The question is, when will he have the chance to get started?

When should fans really start to fear games will be missed?

If this drags into late August, start worrying. The NFL left some wiggle room in the schedule, leaving open the possibility that even if no games were played in the first three weeks of the season, all 16 games could still be played. The league also reserved hotel rooms for an additional week in Indianapolis, the site of the Super Bowl, which means the league could move the game from February 5, 2012, to February 12, 2012, if absolutely necessary.

What is the best-case scenario for fans?

That the legal rulings -- and the prospect for more litigation and acrimony -- will prompt both sides to get back to the negotiating table and make real concessions. That's always been the most sensible course of action.

Of course, if they did that in the first place, we wouldn't be in this mess right now.