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NFL players return to work, fighting in court
EDEN PRAIRIE, MINN. (AP) - The NFL unlocked its gates and opened its doors Friday, allowing players to get back to football for the first time in nearly two months.
Four days after a federal judge ended the 45-day lockout, dozens, if not hundreds, of players showed up at team headquarters, exchanging smiles and high-fives with their teammates and picking up playbooks from their coaches. Tony Romo and Jason Witten even did some sprints on a Dallas Cowboys practice field.
"From the players' standpoint, I think everybody is pleased we're not locked out anymore, especially the rookies," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said on CNBC, his first public comments about the dispute since he became one of the 10 plaintiffs in a federal antitrust lawsuit still pending against the NFL.
Players from Seattle to New York warmly greeted a little bit of normalcy in the most unusual offseason in league history, fully aware that it might not last very long.
Despite the halting steps toward football, the legal fight is far from over. Attorneys for the players filed a brief Friday to challenge the NFL's request that the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis restore the lockout as soon as possible.
Attorneys for the players wrote that the owners failed to offer any evidence that they will suffer irreparable harm if the lockout is not restored. They also suggested that the public and the players, with their short careers, are at far more risk when the $9 billion business is stalled.
"Professional football is part of the fabric of American life," the attorneys wrote. "Because the uncontroverted record of evidence shows that the 2011 season could be canceled or significantly curtailed without an injunction in place, a stay may deprive the public of professional football altogether."
On Friday, at least, the players were back.
"It's time to get started, get this ball rolling," Seattle special teams captain Roy Lewis said.
Giants receiver Devin Thomas flew in from Michigan on Thursday night so that he could be sure to get in a workout and talk to his coaches.
"I was geeked; I had to get back," he said.
Schedules started to take shape, too. The Detroit Lions scheduled organized team activities for Wednesday, the Chicago Bears plan to hold a rookie minicamp next weekend and the Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars and many other teams planned to begin offseason workout programs in earnest on Monday.
The Tennessee Titans' main gate, which had been chained, was open after players were turned away by two armed security guards earlier this week.
"I was just glad to be in the building again," New York Jets receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "I was able to come into the building and I'm able to rehab and everything, so I'm embracing this moment right now."
Center Ryan Kalil was one of about a dozen Carolina Panthers players who showed up to get their playbooks from new coach Ron Rivera. Kalil said he was able to rest and spend more time with his family during the lockout, but he was eager to reunite with his teammates.
"I don't think anyone thought it was going to get to this point and it did," Kalil said. "It's nice there's a little light at the end of the tunnel, and we get to come back and get out of that funk. We'll see what happens moving forward."
Not everything was resolved. The rules for free agency, trades and other roster moves expired with the collective bargaining agreement on March 11, the same day the players' union was disbanded to clear the way for the court fight.
The league was expected to issue a new set of protocols, perhaps as early as Friday.
"What we're doing right now is having to adjust, obviously, to court decisions," Commissioner Roger Goodell told Jets season-ticket holders. "The most important things for us is to obviously respect the decisions of the court, and secondly, make sure we proceed in an orderly fashion and inform all 32 of our clubs to make sure we're doing it in a responsible fashion."
Mandatory minicamps and voluntary practices can begin under rules of the old CBA. Team-supervised workouts will count toward bonuses in player contracts, and players also can work out on their own at team facilities if they have health insurance in place.
But the legal fight was still on everyone's minds.
"There is a little uncertainty because we know we can get started and they can pull the plug on us, so that's the part that is upsetting," Thomas said. "We're going to do what we have to do."
Brady said the bitter fight over the $9 billion business has not compromised the close relationship he has with Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
"I think our relationship is much deeper than that," Brady said. "I don't think it's Tom Brady suing Robert Kraft. ... It's certainly not personal. He was at my wedding. We have a great relationship. We've always had (one). And I'm sure that's going to continue."
Goodell, who was roundly booed by fans at Radio City Music Hall as the draft began Thursday night, said he feared the fight could last for a while. He said he gets why fans booed him: "It's the fans' frustration, and I understand that."
Rams kicker Josh Brown put a turkey hunting trip planned for next week on hold for rookie camp though he left the team facility Friday with a bag of equipment.
"I've got kicking balls and running cleats, you know, in case the lockout does resume," Brown said.
Broncos fullback Spencer Larsen quipped that his wife kicked him out of the house at sunrise, fed up with all the extra family time.
"Like, 'Get out of here. You're throwing off my groove here,'" Larsen said. "She had everything dialed in during the season. The kids behave in a certain way, and dad lets them get away with a lot more."
AP Football Writers Arnie Stapleton and Barry Wilner and AP Sports Writers Dennis Waszak, Bob Baum, Tom Canavan, Stephen Hawkins, Mike Cranston, R.B. Fallstrom, Mark Long and Joseph White and freelancer Warren Mayes in St. Louis contributed to this report.
By Tammy Bruce
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