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No breakthrough in sight in labor talks

Chantilly, Va. – Barring an unexpected breakthrough in collective bargaining agreement negotiations, the NFL will experience its first work stoppage in more than 23 years tomorrow at the stroke of midnight. 

Negotiators representing the NFL owners and the NFL Players Association met again today for the ninth day before a federal mediator, but they appeared no closer to an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, setting up a late-day showdown between the two sides that could result in the first labor interruption since players went on strike after the second week of the 1987 regular season. 

Today began with the league’s 10-member Management Council Executive Committee walking into the negotiations at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services building in Washington, D.C. shortly before 10 a.m. for a session with the NFLPA’s negotiating committee that included executive director DeMaurice Smith, lead attorney Jeffrey Kessler, Saints quarterback Drew Brees and former Jets and Titans center Kevin Mawae. The two sides met for four hours before the ownership’s executive committee left to brief the entire ownership at a hotel about 45 minutes outside Washington. 

Federal mediator George Cohen has asked that the two sides reconvene this morning, although it’s uncertain just how many owners will be on hand for the talks. Executive committee members Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft, both of them highly influential owners, are not expected to attend the negotiations. Giants president and co-owner John Mara said he will remain in the Washington area to be available for negotiations tomorrow.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and league attorneys Jeff Pash and Bob Batterman returned to Washington, D.C. tonight to resume talks with union officials. Even so, all signs point to an inability to find enough common ground to strike a deal – or even to agree to stop the clock and continue negotiations. If no breakthrough is achieved, the union is expected to initiate the process of decertification, which would essentially disband the group and allow individual members – i.e. players – to seek an injunction to block a lockout by the owners. 

The NFL would then attempt to fight any such injunction and declare a lockout at midnight, thus bringing the league to a halt and setting the stage for a flurry of legal activity over the next several months. 

During yesterday afternoon’s owners meetings, no lockout authorization vote was taken, according to Colts owner Jim Irsay. However, the executive council is empowered to declare a lockout. Irsay declined to rule out the possibility of a breakthrough. (graph)
“It’s a chessboard that moves around and things change,” he said. “Things happen at unusual hours. I don’t want to put any certainty on what the evening will bring and tomorrow.” 

Even so, there were few indications that the two sides are close on the major issues, which include how to split $9 billion in revenue, expansion of the regular season from 16 to 18 games, and the implementation of a rookie wage scale. 

Complicating matters was the ruling Tuesday by federal judge David Doty, who declared that the NFL could not keep more than $4 billion in television revenue for the 2011 season, whether games were played or not. Doty ruled that the owners violated the collective bargaining agreement by essentially establishing a war chest for a potential lockout by negotiating a deal that would pay the league even if games weren’t played. 

Asked what message the NFL had for the fans as they watch the proceedings, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. “We’ll get through this. Our commitment is to get a fair agreement that’s good for both sides as soon as possible without any disruption to the season. We understand they don’t want ot hear a lot of details and don’t enjoy seeing this kind of process, but we need to get through it so we can get the focus back on football where it belongs.” 

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