NFL, NFLPA agree to enter mediation

Updated: February 18, 2011, 10:39 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

NEW YORK -- Two weeks from the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, the NFL and its players' union agreed Thursday to mediation in their labor dispute.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independent U.S. government agency, will oversee negotiations in Washington beginning Friday.

"Any time that both sides of negotiations can get together, whether through conventional means of bargaining or mediation, to come to an agreement that can benefit all parties, it is a good thing," NFLPA president Kevin Mawae told The Associated Press in an e-mail.

Friday will be the first of seven straight scheduled days of negotiations between the league and the players' union.

Meanwhile, the union is seeking to make public details from negotiations between the NFL and television networks that resulted in a deal that pays the owners $4 billion, regardless of whether games are played in 2011, the St. Paul Pioneer Press has reported.

A federal judge in Minneapolis will hear arguments Thursday morning on a union appeal over a ruling that allows the league to retain the rights fees, according to the newspaper.

Attorneys for the NFLPA also have asked Judge David S. Doty to unseal 34 pages of case documents beforehand.

Arbitrator Stephen Burbank rejected a union complaint last month that alleged the NFL structured the contracts so it would be guaranteed money even if there were a lockout in 2011 -- while not maximizing revenue from other seasons, when the league would have to share that income with players.

The union said that violated a 17-year-old agreement between the sides that stipulates the league must make good-faith efforts to maximize revenue for players.

The NFL and NFLPA agreed to meet twice a week two weeks ago, yet have met only once since.

"Personally, I would be surprised if they met more than two or three days in a row," one source familiar with the talks told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

FMCS director George H. Cohen can make suggestions and recommendations, but he has no authority to impose settlements. Coming to an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement still will be up to the two parties.

"Our agency director will be working with the parties to assist them in reaching a voluntary, mutually acceptable agreement," FMCS public affairs director John Arnold said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

After holding separate discussions with representatives from the league and the union, Cohen said both sides accepted an invitation from his agency to get involved in the stalled negotiations.

"Due to the extreme sensitivity of these negotiations and consistent with the FMCS's long-standing practice, the agency will refrain from any public comment concerning the future schedule and/or the status of those negotiations until further notice," Cohen said.

The collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players expires at 11:59 p.m. ET March 3. Last week, talks broke down, leading to the cancellation of one planned session.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told the AP in an e-mail: "We are now in mediation."

The league also switched an owners meeting from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 3, to Chantilly, Va., March 2-3.

In a statement, NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said: "The NFLPA has always focused on a fair collective bargaining agreement through negotiations. We hope that this renewed effort, through mediation, will help the players and owners reach a successful deal."

Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, an executive board member of the NFLPA, told ESPN's "NFL Live" on Thursday that he was "excited" about the prospect of entering mediation.

"It can do nothing but help," Saturday said.

The biggest issue separating the owners and players is how to divide about $9 billion in annual revenues. Under the old deal, the owners receive $1 billion off the top, and they want to increase that to $2 billion before players get their share.

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

The NFL and union went more than two months without holding any formal bargaining sessions, until a meeting Feb. 5, the day before the Super Bowl.

The NFL filed an unfair labor practice charge against its players' union with the National Labor Relations Board on Monday.

The league's filing said the union "consistently has failed to confer in good faith" during negotiations for a new contract and the union's "conduct amounts to surface bargaining and an anticipatory refusal to bargain."

Aiello told the AP the mediation would not have an effect on the NLRB complaint.

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay recalled the last CBA negotiations in 2006, which resulted in a deal that the owners opted out of in 2008.

"Since the last time, things have broken off and guys have gone their separate ways," Irsay said Thursday. "I remember that happened the last time and [then-commissioner] Paul Tagliabue ended up texting [union chief] Gene Upshaw and said, 'Why don't we get back together.' So you never know when something positive can happen and something good can get done.

"I don't have a strong anticipation something will get done before [March 3], but I think it's possible."

Player sources told ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen that last week's talks ended after owners walked away from the negotiating table when the NFLPA proposed to take an average of 50 percent of all revenue generated by the league.

However, other sources familiar with the talks told Mortensen and Schefter that the negotiations broke off when the union characterized its documents as an "illustration" that NFL officials believed represented a proposal for revenue sharing between owners and players.

The FMCS website says it "provides free mediation services in contract negotiation disputes between employers and their unionized employees. All the parties have to do is make a request."

Cohen, who said in a statement that the negotiations will be conducted "under my auspices," is no stranger to sports mediation. He was involved in Major League Soccer's talks with its players' union and a work stoppage was avoided last year.

Cohen also has worked with the players' associations for Major League Baseball and the NBA, and was an adviser to the NHL players' union before joining the FMCS.

The FMCS also became involved in negotiations during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, and a 2005 dispute between the U.S. Soccer Federation and its players.

"Our ultimate goal is a new CBA," Atallah wrote Thursday on his Twitter feed. "I will not discuss any details about the next set of negotiations. We are observing a strict media blackout."

Some players, however, were commenting moments after the announcement.

"NFL and NFLPA agreeing to meet with a federal mediator is a real positive step," Vikings tackle Bryant McKinnie said on his Twitter account. "Let's see if he can get them to make actual progress."

Added player agent Drew Rosenhaus: "Exciting news to see the NFLPA & the Owners talking again through the mediation process -- a productive step in the right direction!"

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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