Judge sets more mediation for July 19

Updated: July 11, 2011, 2:42 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

MINNEAPOLIS -- The federal magistrate judge who is mediating the labor dispute between NFL owners and players has scheduled another session for July 19 in Minneapolis.

Judge Arthur J. Boylan set the meeting on Saturday but made clear that both sides were free to continue their own sessions as they work toward a new collective bargaining agreement.

Owners and players are to meet again, beginning Tuesday, after two days of long negotiations last week. Lawyers from both sides are to meet Monday.

Little progress was made on Friday before talks ended in New York, a source told ESPN's Sal Paolantonio. While last week's talks between owners and players produced progress on most economic issues, the rookie wage scale held up negotiations Friday, multiple sources told ESPN.com's John Clayton.

Owners were adamant about limiting the money going to the top 16 draft picks, sources said, and players rejected owners' proposals as too extreme.

Players balked at having a top-16 pick take less in guarantees than in 2010, sources said, and at five-year contracts that would diminish in salary to close to the NFL minimum by the fifth year.

Players have been asking for four-year contracts for all first-rounders, but owners insist they can't give up significant guarantees without being able to pro-rate the signing bonus over five years.

Owners also are looking for ways to prevent agents from finding creative ways around the rookie pool. Owners have discussed instituting an annual "threshold" that, if violated, would turn the proposed wage scale into a hard rookie wage scale, according to sources.

There's also still work to be done on the new parameters of free agency, particularly whether teams will be allowed the right of first refusal on up to three of their free agents. One agent told ESPN last week: "That punishes the top guys."

Also Friday, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis threw out a judge's order lifting the lockout. The ruling, which vacated Judge Susan Nelson's April 25th order, interrupted the meeting shortly after it started Friday and consumed a lot of time as the participants digested and interpreted the ruling.

Smith also held a conference call Friday afternoon with player representatives from each of the 32 teams.

The appellate court ruled that the lockout was against federal law after players argued they were suffering irreparable harm. The 8th Circuit put that order on hold, and its ruling Friday said Nelson ignored federal law in reaching her decision.

It does allow the players to go back to federal court in September and re-file their antitrust case.

The substance of the appellate court ruling was not a surprise to either owners or players, and it is not expected to change the tenor of the negotiations. The ruling itself wasn't a surprise because it was foreshadowed in previous court opinions -- Judge Kermit Bye had said last month that neither side would be completely happy with the ruling.

The urgency, it appears, is starting to heat up. Several teams have already canceled their traditional out-of-town portions of training camp and the Hall of Fame game between Chicago and St. Louis is less than a month away. And Boylan's date for the next mediation is four days after the self-imposed deadline to start the preseason on time.

Boylan ordered both sides to continue mediation without him "in an effort to define and narrow the differences between their respective settlement positions." He also ordered attorneys from both sides to be ready to meet with him on the evening of July 18 "for an in-person agenda-setting session" that presumably would set the stage for meaningful, fruitful talks the following day.

If the league and players have not reached a deal by the time they are scheduled to meet with Boylan in Minneapolis, it could be bad news for training camps and perhaps even preseason games. The Giants, Jets and Ravens have already announced that, no matter when an agreement is reached, they will conduct all of their preseason work at their primary facilities rather than leave for various college campuses, a time-honored tradition that coaches embrace as a team-building exercise and small towns across the country depend upon for tourism revenue.

The Vikings have already said that if an agreement is not reached by July 18, they will have to cancel training camp at Minnesota State University in Mankato, where they have held two-a-days every summer since 1966.

And the Rams and Bears are scheduled to kick off the preseason with a game in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 7, just two and a half weeks after Boylan's scheduled meeting on the 19th.

Information from ESPN national correspondent Sal Paolantonio, ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton and The Associated Press was used in this report.

ALSO SEE