After raising hopes, talks break off and the union dissolved itself, meaning players no longer are protected under labour law as they approach the courts.
NFL has come down to lockout and lawsuits
As recently as a week ago, when NFL owners and players agreed to extend the deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement, Roger Goodell, the league commissioner, gave the impression a lockout was avoidable.
Yet here we are: the most popular sport in the US is facing its first work stoppage in nearly 25 years.
The owners imposed a lockout on the players over the weekend, essentially shutting down operations. That came hours after talks broke off and the union dissolved itself, meaning players no longer are protected under labour law.
The players responded by going to court. Nine players, including superstars Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, filed a class-action lawsuit in Minnesota and asked for a preliminary injunction stopping the lockout.
"I know this sort of gives us a bad name - as well as the owners - in some fans' eyes," Brian Robison, the Minnesota Vikings' defensive end, said. "Some fans are more upset with the owners, and some are more upset with the players."
The lockout, a right management has to shut down a business when a CollectiveBargaining Agreement expires, means there can be no communication between the teams and players, no players can be signed and teams will not pay for players' health insurance.
What happened? With so much at stake, why did everything fall apart despite 16 days of face-to-face talks? In terms of the key bargaining issues, one stands out: owners and players could not agree on a way to split the billions of dollars that come from television contracts, ticket and merchandise sales, and sponsorship deals.
When talks ended, it appeared the NFL and union were about $185 million (Dh679m) apart on how much owners should get up front each season for certain operating expenses before splitting the rest of the revenues with players. That is a far cry from the $1bn that separated the sides for months, but it was still an insurmountable difference.
But this was not merely about numbers. It also was about trust and respect, and each side has accused the other of bargaining in bad faith. The NFL filed a charge against the union with the National Labor Relations Board. The union has claimed owners were planning for a lockout since they exercised an opt-out clause in the old CBA in 2008.
After talks ended, NFL Players Association executive DeMaurice Smith referred to football as a "business where two partners don't trust each other", and said: "While the players were moving forward, thinking that this was about fairness, honesty and transparency, the National Football League was meeting in secret to talk about collusion, conspiracy, leverage and breaking our game."
The owners, of course, see it differently.
"I never really got the feeling during the past weeks that [the players] were serious about negotiating," said John Mara, the New York Giants owner.
* Associated Press