The NFL commissioner and the boss of the league’s locked-out players stood together this week and addressed the league’s rookies, a picture of cooperation that raised hopes pro football would soon be back in business.
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This, however, is the reality: The league’s longest work stoppage has now stretched into July, with gaps that still must be bridged before teams can be assembled and training camps can begin.
The next bargaining session has been scheduled for after the holiday weekend, putting the end point of this labor dispute – now well past the 100-day mark – ever closer to the preseason.
The negotiating teams led by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith met for a couple of hours Friday morning at a Minneapolis law firm with U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, following a 15-hour Thursday session that stretched past midnight and gave the negotiators a short night’s sleep.
Several people familiar with the situation said the talks would resume Tuesday in New York City. The people all spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press because Boylan has ordered the details of the talks to be kept confidential.
Goodell, Smith, their colleagues and constituents all appeared in good spirits as they left the office building where they met and either walked away or climbed into black cars waiting by the doors.
But they had little to offer for an update.
”We’ll continue to meet next week, and the goal is to get a deal done,” Smith said on his way out.
Said NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash: ”We’ll be back at it again next week.”
Friday marked the fourth straight day of discussions, with a handful of owners and players joining their lawyers and leaders for the last two days.
The two sides have been trying to figure out how to agree on the division of revenues for this $9 billion business that has steadily grown in popularity, power and wealth over the last couple of decades as the NFL has become the nation’s dominant pro sports league.
The revenue split, a major sticking point all along and particularly over the last couple of weeks, is considered a domino that must fall for a deal to get done.
There are several other issues to iron out as well, since the two sides are essentially creating a new collective bargaining agreement from scratch. The old one expired March 11, and the lockout began the next day. That’s also when the NFLPA declared an end to its union status, a move the owners have protested as strategically convenient and have contested in court.
Among the players in Minneapolis this week were Jeff Saturday of the Indianapolis Colts and Brian Waters of the Kansas City Chiefs, with Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and John Mara of the New York Giants part of the group of owners.
For weeks, owners, players and their representatives have been crisscrossing the country, holding unannounced meetings in spots ranging from a Chicago suburb to the Maryland shore.
This week began with optimism stemming from the joint trip Smith and Goodell took to Sarasota, Fla., to address incoming rookies at an orientation symposium Wednesday morning. But they still left Minneapolis without a deal, and time has become more of a factor in this process.
Training camps start in about three weeks, with the preseason-opening Hall of Fame game scheduled Aug. 7 between the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams. Even missing an exhibition game or two would begin to really cost the league money, not to mention testing the faith of the fans that have made this sport so big.
There also is the wild card of a pending ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the players’ antitrust lawsuit against the league, which was filed in Minneapolis and prompted Boylan’s involvement as a mediator.
The appellate judges won’t wait forever, and one of them warned earlier that neither side will like their decision on the legality of the lockout. But a faction on the players’ side believes it’s worth waiting on the court’s ruling, and the owners have had plans in place for years to endure an extended work stoppage.