Sources: Players, owners to rejoin talks
MINNEAPOLIS -- NFL players and owners will join commissioner Roger Goodell and players' boss DeMaurice Smith in Minnesota for labor talks on Thursday and Friday as they try to put pro football back in business, sources told ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen.
The latest round of negotiations between the two sides -- the fifth since they began hopping from city to city for clandestine meetings -- kicked off Tuesday in Minneapolis with Goodell, Smith, their attorneys and staffs in the room but no owners or players.
The location is significant because Minneapolis is where the players filed an antitrust suit against the owners and the sides tried and failed to strike an agreement through court-ordered mediation under U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan.
Goodell and Smith returned to the Minneapolis area Wednesday afternoon after the duo took questions from rookies at an orientation symposium in Sarasota, Fla., where recent draft picks were glad -- and relieved -- to see their two surprise guests.
"Guys are hurting for money right now," said quarterback Christian Ponder, a first-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings. "It's a crazy time, especially with the uncertainty of when we're going to start and get some money in our pocket."
Smith invited Goodell to the orientation session for rookies -- put on by the players' association after the NFL canceled the event -- and the pair flew down to Florida on Tuesday night. After a joint breakfast Wednesday, they talked for an hour with 155 rookies.
"We felt it was important to be down here with the players," Goodell said. "This is an important few days. We're going to get back to work."
Owners and players are seeking a deal that would divide revenues for the $9 billion business -- the biggest hurdle to clear -- and guide league activities for years to come.
This week, the two sides are working on some tedious components of a possible deal, including a rookie wage system.
Goodell and Smith didn't have a direct answer when asked by the rookies when the impasse will end so they can meet their coaches and start their careers. Still, their joint appearance was seen as a positive sign.
"That's really the significance of this," NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah said. "There's a lockout happening now, but we've got to look forward and consider the necessity to have a positive working relationship with the league."
Ponder said Goodell urged the rookies to be ready, whenever the lockout is lifted.
"The biggest thing he hammered home is we really have no idea when this thing is going to end," Ponder said. "But us rookies have to prepare for it. It's going to end at some point. As rookies it's our job to be prepared. Yeah, we've missed some practices, but we can't change that."
This set of "secret" negotiations had involved Goodell, Smith and their staffs, but no owners or players. Such high-level meetings have been key to previous labor agreements, particularly when the late Gene Upshaw ran the players' association and Paul Tagliabue was commissioner.
Goodell and Smith did not seem to have the same kind of rapport, but have been spending more time together in recent weeks. Smith said both sides are "continuing to work hard" to end the four-month-old lockout, which has put the 2011 season in jeopardy.
Smith called the question-and-answer session with rookies "important to ensure our young men appreciated how important we think these few days are. ... I'm thrilled Roger could come down with us and talk to the rookies in a very good, direct way."
Atallah said a lot of the questions from players were related to the lockout. He said Goodell and Smith answered as best they could given a court order to maintain confidentiality about the negotiations.
"It was important that the players see this is not personal," Atallah said. "It was important that the players see that (Goodell and Smith) can work through their differences in a constructive way, and that hopefully sooner rather than later they'll be playing football."
Others in attendance included top overall pick Cam Newton of the Panthers, No. 2 overall pick Von Miller of the Broncos, No. 3 pick Marcell Dareus of the Bills and quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who has decided to bypass his senior season at Ohio State.
"You come out of college with plans of making big money, and everything goes on hold," said Dareus. "It grinds you."
Among those speaking to the rookies Tuesday was former Giants and Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress, released from prison this month after spending nearly two years in jail on a weapon possession charge.
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"Plaxico spoke candidly about the impact of personal decisions on a professional career," Atallah said.
Bills rookie defensive back Aaron Williams found Burress' presentation impressive.
"He's a phenomenal guy," Williams said. "It's a very strong message for everybody. It lets you know that one bad decision can cost everything. It takes a long time to get a reputation, but it's really quick to lose one."
Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller spent years crafting his reputation and this spring he fronted a group of retirees that sought and eventually won the right to join the current players' legal fight.
Eller has been actively trying to organize and unite retired players in a quest to secure better benefits and medical care from the league.
Eller and his attorneys were part of the court-ordered mediation sessions -- six days, in all -- in Boylan's chambers in April and May, and Eller met with Goodell and some owners in Chicago earlier this month.
Shawn Stuckey, one of the attorneys for Eller's group, said the retirees, while trying to be patient, also have been disappointed to not be more involved, citing the ruling by U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson that the two cases be combined.
"We want football, and we want this to come to an amicable resolution," Stuckey said. "We don't want to be in the way of an agreement. We're well within our rights to object and say these mediation sessions are not consistent with what Judge Nelson ordered. However, we feel one of the best ways to get a resolution is to let the active players reach a resolution, and then we can reach a resolution on our issues."
Stuckey indicated, however, that Eller's group doesn't want to be left out.
"If the active players and the league are serious about getting football under way soon, they've got to start negotiating with the retirees. Even the slight chance that the season could be delayed should be sufficient enough to motivate those guys to work with the retirees, if they're serious about actually getting football played and getting it played fast."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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