NFL labor talks close for day

Updated: March 1, 2011, 9:33 PM ET
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- With time running out on the NFL's labor contract, one team owner -- the New York Giants' John Mara -- joined mediated negotiations between the league and players Tuesday, and the union won a key court ruling about TV contract money.

The sides met for six hours Tuesday. NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith and his group left shortly before 8 p.m. -- 52 hours before the current collective bargaining agreement expires.

Mara, the first owner to attend the federal mediation; Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, chairman of the league's competition committee; and Washington Redskins general manager Bruce Allen were among those accompanying NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for the eighth day of bargaining overseen by George Cohen. He is the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a U.S. government agency.

"I don't think you could have a greater sense of urgency," Jeff Pash, the league's lead labor negotiator, said on his way into the meeting. "We all know what the calendar is, and we all know what's at stake for everybody. And that's why we're here. We're going to be here as long as it takes and work as hard as we can work to get something done."

Afterward, in keeping with Cohen's order to stay silent on the mediation, neither the NFL nor the union would discuss whether they fared any better Tuesday than they did during more than 40 hours of meetings spread across seven previous days of mediation. When that round ended Thursday, Cohen said the parties still had "very strong differences" on the "all-important core issues."

Mediation will resume Wednesday, when union president Kevin Mawae is expected to be in Washington. He has yet to sit in on this round of talks.

The CBA runs out at midnight as Thursday becomes Friday on the East Coast, and the owners could lock out the players afterward. The union could also decertify -- essentially, declare itself out of the business of representing players. The players would then give up their rights under labor law and take their chances in court under antitrust law.

Whatever happens this week could cause the country's most popular sport to lose regular-season games to a work stoppage for the first time since 1987. Or, perhaps, everything could be resolved by management and labor in an industry with revenues topping $9 billion annually.

Buffalo Bills safety George Wilson -- who's not involved in the negotiations but is getting updates from the union as his team's NFLPA representative -- doesn't expect a new deal by the deadline.

"Everything I'm telling my guys is: Prepare this Friday for the start of a lockout," Wilson said. "I certainly don't believe a deal will be reached by Thursday midnight. That's what I feel in my heart. I have not received any indication [from the union] that we're close to a deal."

In a ruling Tuesday that could have a significant bearing on the talks, U.S. District Court judge David Doty in Minneapolis sided with the union by overruling a special master's Feb. 1 decision to reject the NFLPA's request that $4 billion in 2011 payments from networks to the league be placed in escrow if there is a lockout.

Doty, who has jurisdiction over NFL labor matters, said there will be a hearing to determine what should happen to that money. The date of the hearing wasn't announced immediately.

The NFL played down the importance of Doty's decision. The union issued a statement calling it "irrefutable evidence that owners had a premeditated plan to lock out players and fans for more than two years."

As he left Tuesday's mediation, Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday called Doty's ruling a "really good reversal."

"I'm sure we'll hear more tonight," Saturday, a member of the NFLPA executive committee, told The Associated Press. "But it sounds very favorable."

The union accused the NFL of structuring TV contracts agreed to in 2009 and 2010 so owners would be guaranteed money even if there were a work stoppage in 2011 -- while not getting the most revenue possible in other seasons, when income would need to be shared with players. The union argued this violated an agreement between the sides that says the NFL must make good-faith efforts to maximize revenue for players. The NFLPA also said any work stoppage clauses in TV deals guaranteed "war chest" income for the NFL, giving it an unfair advantage in labor talks.

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 got $1 billion off the top. They entered these negotiations seeking to double 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.

"What's the word we're using right now? 'Cautiously optimistic,'" Seattle Seahawks guard Chester Pitts said after attending the first 3½ hours of Tuesday's negotiations. "We're making a point to go into it doing all we can to do things the right way, and hopefully we get a deal done."

Asked about Mara's presence, Pitts said: "He's a businessman, and businessmen like to make money. So sometimes you've got to come, make sure you're hovering around, make sure everything's being done to get a deal done. And I'm pretty sure he'll say he had that sense."

The 32 teams' owners are scheduled to meet Wednesday and Thursday at a hotel in Chantilly, Va., for updates on the status of negotiations. And then they will need to determine their next step.

In many respects, this boils down to money, of course. And there is plenty of money at risk the longer it takes for the league and NFLPA to work together again.

The league estimates there would be a cut in gross revenues of $350 million if there's no new CBA by August, before the preseason starts, and a loss of revenues totaling $1 billion if no new contract is in place until September. And if regular-season games are lost in 2011, the NFL figures that revenue losses would amount to about $400 million per week.

"Both parties are at it, full steam ahead, doing all we can to come to an agreement," Pitts said. "It's two groups doing business. The tone? None of that matters. It's business, and that's the approach, and that's the expectation. Doing all we can to get a deal done."


Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press