Roger Goodell

Roger Goodell Credit: Getty Images

First they’ll meet separately.

Then they’ll meet together.

With any luck, the NFL owners and players will land smack in the middle — middle ground, that is.

That’s exactly what Judge Susan Nelson hopes the sides can achieve under her order last week for court-mediated negotiations. Those talks, which will be supervised by U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, began Tuesday when Boylan met with counsel for the locked-out players’ two major antitrust suits — the cases of Brady et al. v. NFL, and Eller et al. v. NFL. He will meet Wednesday with the owners’ counsel, and then bring the sides together to begin face-to-face talks Thursday in hopes of hammering out a new collective bargaining agreement.

The immediate impact of Tuesday’s session favored the players, however, merely because they got what they wanted from Nelson — mediated talks aimed at settling the antitrust cases. The owners wanted to resume in a collective bargaining setting in Washington under federal mediator George Cohen. Having their talks under the auspices of a U.S. magistrate judge, and defined as a legal settlement, was at least a semantic win for the NFLPA.

Actually getting an agreement is another story. The sides could simply stall until Nelson rules on the last week’s player injunction against the lockout, which she promised Monday will come “in due course.” Nelson also said the owners could not use the players’ presence at the bargaining table to characterize the NFLPA’s March 11 decertification from union to trade organization — a move that opened the way for the antitrust suits — as “a sham.”

It remains to be seen whether the owners believe the players hold a strong enough legal position to force some major compromises. But in the early going, the players are in the lead.

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