NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, union executive director DeMaurice Smith and members of their negotiating teams participated in a second consecutive six-hour session with a federal mediator Saturday, trying to spur progress less than two weeks before the league’s labor deal expires.
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They’re finally talking to each other – but they’re not revealing how well it’s going.
”I have nothing to say, obviously,” Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer for the NFL Players Association, said on his way out of the meeting. ”We’re in a cone of silence.”
For the second day in a row, the two sides convened at the office of George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a U.S. government agency. They met with Cohen for the first time Friday after agreeing to the mediation, which is not binding but is meant as a way to initiate progress in the slow and sometimes contentious bargaining.
The plan calls for several days of negotiations with Cohen, who asked participants to not make any public comments on the process.
Neither Goodell nor Smith stopped to take questions as they left Saturday’s meeting.
Asked while he got into a waiting car if he were sure he didn’t want to comment at all about the negotiations, Goodell replied, ”That, I’m sure of.”
The current collective bargaining agreement runs out at the end of the day March 3. The players believe that team owners are preparing to lock them out as soon as the following day, which could threaten the 2011 season. The NFL has not lost games to a work stoppage since 1987.
Among those joining Goodell on Saturday: NFL counsel and lead labor negotiator Jeff Pash; league senior vice president and treasurer Joe Siclare; and outside lawyer Bob Batterman, who was working for the NHL when it lost its entire 2004-05 season to a lockout.
Smith was accompanied by at least a dozen people, a much larger union contingent than was seen Friday. In addition to Kessler and another lawyer, Richard Berthelsen, the union was represented by Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, and former players Pete Kendall and Sean Morey.
None would reveal anything about what went on during Saturday’s talks, but Saturday noted: ”Nothing can be done without communicating.”
Indeed, the start of mediation could be a positive sign after several months of infrequent negotiations – and frequent rhetoric, including charges from each side that the other was hoping for a work stoppage.
The league and union went more than two months without any formal bargaining until Feb. 5, the day before the Super Bowl. The sides met again once last week but called off a second meeting that had been scheduled for the following day.
The most recent CBA was signed in 2006, but owners exercised a clause in 2008 that allowed them to opt out of the deal.
The biggest issue separating the sides is how to divide about $9 billion in annual revenues. 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.