By Gene Cherry
SALVO, North Carolina (Reuters) - A federal judge is expected to rule soon, perhaps as early as this week, on a NFL players' request that could have a major impact on their labor dispute with league owners.
The players, including high profile quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, are seeking an injunction to halt a league-imposed lockout now in its sixth week.
How Judge Susan Richard Nelson of Minnesota rules could be a significant bargaining chip for either the players or owners in their dispute, legal experts say.
But the judge's decision almost certainly would result in the other side appealing to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, thus lengthening the legal process of the dispute, dubbed as a row between billionaires and millionaires.
Judge Nelson said on April 6 she would need a couple of weeks to make a decision on the request and Wednesday marked 14 days since her comment.
While both sides are hoping her ruling will favor them, the judge said after hearing arguments in the case, "it seems to me both sides are at risk."
The anticipation of her ruling comes as the two sides entered the fourth day of court-supervised mediation in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Judge Nelson ordered the mediation under federal magistrate Arthur Boylan in an attempt to push the parties toward resolving the dispute themselves.
Some progress has been made but much remains to be done, sources told the league-owned NFL Network.
Along with the injunction request, the players have filed an antitrust lawsuit against the owners. That, too, must be resolved.
Both sides also are awaiting a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board on an owners' complaint against the since-decertified players union. A ruling favoring the owners could bring the sides back to the bargaining table, where talks broke down March 11.
Ultimately, the two sides must reach a new collective bargaining agreement and settle a major impasse of how to divide $9 billion in annual league revenue.
The league, meanwhile, is preparing for a return to the playing field by September's start of the regular season.
"We have every intention of playing a full schedule," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told the NFL Network after the league released its 2011 schedule on Tuesday.
But Goodell, who has been participating in the Minnesota mediation, also said, "Clearly we have some uncertainty with respect to the labor situation."
The talks also come as NFL teams prepare for the all-important draft of college players on April 28-30. The selection process is a major restocking tool for teams.
(Editing by Julian Linden)