NFL, union return for mediation sessions

Updated: March 4, 2011, 2:07 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

WASHINGTON -- Use a 24-hour extension to get a longer reprieve. That appeared to be the approach for the NFL and the players' union Friday.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and several league executives arrived at the offices of federal mediator George Cohen in the morning, with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire at 11:59 p.m. ET. Both groups agreed to a 24-hour extension on Thursday, with another extension on the agenda.

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and Kansas City Chiefs guard Brian Waters showed up about two hours later, then Smith left the building at about 1 p.m. after a two-hour stay.

Smith refused to answer questions about another extension.

"We want to continue to thank our fans for still being patient as we work through this," he said.

Each side had been expected to meet separately with Cohen before any negotiations would be held.

"If we can make the kind of progress that you needed to make to have a further extension, that's where we'd be looking," NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said before heading in to meet with Cohen. "Hopefully, we can make some progress and keep this thing going. That's obviously in everybody's interest. It's been our goal all along and we're going to just keep at it."

Goodell said, "We're going back to work hard again," but gave no indication what he expects to happen.

Cohen already has gotten the union to agree to a seven- to 10-day extension to the talks, but still awaits the owners' response, a source told ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen.

If the CBA expires, the owners could lock out the players, and the union could decertify to try and prevent that through the courts -- something the NFLPA did in 1989.

Allowing the CBA to expire could put the two sides on the road to a year without football, even though opening kickoff of the 2011 season is still six months away. The labor unrest comes as the NFL is at the height of its popularity, breaking records for TV ratings: This year's Super Bowl was the most-watched program in U.S. history. The previous No. 1 was the 2010 Super Bowl.

The two sides narrowed the financial gap between them by roughly $5 million per team per year. Nevertheless, a significant divide exists -- roughly $25 million per team per year, sources familiar with the process told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. With 32 teams in the league, the gap equates to $750 million to $800 million per year.

According to sources, there are no face-to-face negotiations scheduled Friday between the owners and the union.

Asked how much progress was made Thursday, Pash said: "You can't measure it like that. ... It's not like a stock that you could chart on an hour-by-hour basis. There are a lot of issues, it's complicated. People are working hard, and I think we're just going to have to keep at it."

They were at it for about eight hours Thursday with Cohen. The CBA was set to expire at midnight as Thursday became Friday, which likely would have prompted the first work stoppage since 1987 for a league that rakes in $9 billion a year.

Washington Redskins player representative Vonnie Holliday cautioned that the two sides are "still apart" on a pact to replace the current CBA. "I don't see how we can be that close right now unless somebody is going to pull a rabbit out of the hat," he said. "I just don't see it."

Even President Barack Obama weighed in when asked if he would intervene in the dispute.

"I'm a big football fan," Obama said, "but I also think that for an industry that's making $9 billion a year in revenue, they can figure out how to divide it up in a sensible way and be true to their fans, who are the ones who obviously allow for all the money that they're making. So my expectation and hope is that they will resolve it without me intervening, because it turns out I've got a lot of other stuff to do."

On hand Friday morning was Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy, a member of the league's labor committee, which has the authority to call for a lockout if a new agreement isn't reached.

The biggest sticking point all along has been how to divide the league's revenues, including what cut team owners should get up front to help cover certain costs, such as stadium construction. Under the old deal, owners received about $1 billion off the top. They entered these negotiations seeking to add another $1 billion to that.

Among the other significant topics: a rookie wage scale; the owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; and benefits for retired players.

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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