Those who were perilously optimistic that the lockout might be lifted and free agency might start before summer break gets underway can finally join the rest of us in cynical labor hell.

As was widely expected — yet strangely drawn out — the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis granted the NFL’s motion for an extended stay on appeal of Judge Susan Nelson’s decision to forcibly lift the lockout, according to NFL Network’s Albert Breer.

That means that the work stoppage will continue until the court hears the appeal and renders a decision. The hearing is scheduled for June 3.

If the appeals court upholds Nelson’s original ruling, the league will be forced to launch the 2011 season. Players will have to be paid, while free agents will be free to sign and the trade market will be opened. As a result, the players will likely have acquired enough leverage to finally force the league to do another bad deal.

If the appeals court sides with the owners, the lockout will continue until the two sides can come to a new agreement on the terms of the 2011 season and a number of seasons to follow.

Suddenly, the leverage is sliding back to the league’s side. The decision to grant a stay from the Eighth Circuit – posted here — reveals that there’s a very real chance the court will rule in favor of the owners in June.

One notable snippet, courtesy Liz Mullen of the Sports Business Journal: ”We have serious doubts that the district court had jurisdiction to enjoin the League’s lockout.”

And another one, courtesy Adam Schefter of ESPN: “Our present view is that Judge Nelson’s interpretation is unlikely to prevail.”

But it was only a 2-1 decision, and it took more than two weeks. As they so often do, politics might play a large role. The two judges who sided with the owners were appointed by George W. Bush, a Republican. The one dissenting judge was appointed by Democrat Bill Clinton.

Considering that 13 of the 16 judges in the Eighth Circuit were appointed by Republicans, the players likely feel pretty defeated right about now.

“The NFL’s request for a stay of the lockout that was granted today means no football,” said the organization formerly known as the NFLPA in a press release. “The players are in mediation and are working to try to save the 2011 season. The court will hear the full appeal on June 3.”

This all falls on a day in which legitimate — and surprising — progress was reportedly made in mediation. ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio reported this evening that a breakout has occurred in negotiations, with the owners drawing up on new proposal upon the request of U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan.

But that news broke prior to the announcement from the Eighth Circuit. Here’s hoping that their newfound leverage will work to further push the league to get something done, instead of encouraging them to await the appeals court’s decision and gain even more leverage in an attempt to force the players to cry uncle.