MINNEAPOLIS — The court-ordered mediation between the NFL and its locked-out players ended early Tuesday afternoon but the league’s lead negotiator said progress is continuing to be made in mediation.
“I’ve said it many times the only way we’re going to get this accomplished is face-to-face dialogue and really digging into the issues and I think we had a good step in that direction today. And I hope that we’ll continue, confident it’s going to continue and we’ll be back early next month to continue that process.
”— Jeff Pash, NFL’s lead negotiator
The sides will resume talks June 7 just days after a June 3 hearing in a federal appeals court regarding a lower court’s ruling that temporarily lifted the lockout.
Jeff Pash, the NFL’s lead negotiator in the ongoing labor talks with the former players’ union told ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio that he was happy with the progress made in Tuesday’s talks.
“We had a good discussion today,” Pash told ESPN. “I’ve said it many times the only way we’re going to get this accomplished is face-to-face dialogue and really digging into the issues and I think we had a good step in that direction today. And I hope that we’ll continue, confident it’s going to continue and we’ll be back early next month to continue that process.”
Former Vikings standout Carl Eller, who was at the talks representing the retired players who joined the antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, also said the talks went well.
“I feel we really got some movement between last night and today,” Eller said, declining like the rest of the participants to discuss details.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, four team owners and others were present Tuesday for the league. Linebacker Mike Vrabel joined attorneys for the players.
Vrabel, one of the plaintiffs on the antitrust lawsuit against the league, questioned the NFL’s commitment to striking a deal outside the courthouse after mediation concluded.
“I don’t know if there’s any sense of urgency on their part,” Vrabel said. “I certainly understand that the closer you get to training camp, and the dates as players we’re used to reporting for training camp and playing preseason games and playing regular-season games, this thing becomes a lot more real for everybody involved. The players aren’t out there doing the work they’d normally be doing. They’re doing it on their own and they’re taking a lot of risk. I think that people appreciate the fact that guys are still preparing for a season.”
Vrabel added: “I think the most important thing is that we continue to meet.”
Goodell and NFL Players Association leader DeMaurice Smith had lunch with U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, the court-appointed mediator, on Tuesday.
Tueday’s mediation session was the sixth day of talks in front of Boylan.
Pash said he thought Boylan had done a good job of “pushing the parties,” but he doesn’t believe the dispute over the future of the $9 billion business will be settled in court.
“The only way we’re going to solve this is by sitting down together,” Pash said, echoing the NFL’s preference for traditional negotiations outside the courts. “I think we got some work done today and we’re going to keep at it.”
Owners have a regularly scheduled meeting next week, but Pash said they won’t be putting together a “plan of attack.”
“We’re not at war with anybody. These players are an integral part of our business, and we want to work with them,” he said.
Robert Boland, a professor of sports management at New York University who is following the case, said the timing doesn’t help the players.
“The players have had great solidarity to this point, but that will get tighter as players go longer and longer without their workout and signing bonuses and get closer to the season,” Boland said. “The longer we go without any kind of sense of when they will get paid again, the more their internal resolve is tested and the harder it becomes to hold them together.”
He added: “Essentially, the NFL does want and need to play, but there’s really no incentive from a financial and technical perspective to rush that. They can allow the players to come back to them.”
On Monday, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis said the lockout can stay until a full appeal is heard on whether it is legal. That hearing is scheduled for June 3, before the same panel that issued this 2-1 decision.
The appellate court said it believes the NFL has proven it “likely will suffer some degree of irreparable harm without a stay.” The court also cast doubt on the conclusions of U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who ruled April 25 that the lockout should be lifted to save the players from irreversible damage. The 8th Circuit panel put her decision on hold four days later.
NFL Labor Negotiations and Lockout
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“The league has made a strong showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits,” the appellate court majority wrote.
Michael Hausfeld, an attorney for the retired players, said the owners made a new proposal in Monday’s session.
“It probably is not one that would be acceptable as is, but it clearly opens a dialogue,” Hausfeld said Monday.
The 8th Circuit said it would make its decision quickly, a “circumstance that should minimize harm to the players during the offseason and allow the case to be resolved well before the scheduled beginning of the 2011 season.”
Indeed, with training camps just two months away and the first preseason game set for Aug. 8, there is restlessness around the league to go with all the uncertainty.
The 8th Circuit’s decision to keep the lockout in place could be a signal of how the two sides will fare in the full appeal. The majority opinion, from Judges Steven Colloton and Duane Benton, sided with the NFL. Judge Kermit Bye dissented in favor of the players.
Still in the courts is a separate but related matter. U.S. District Judge David Doty is determining the fate of some $4 billion in broadcast revenue he previously ruled was unfairly secured by the NFL in the last round of contract extensions with the networks to use as leverage in the form of lockout insurance. The players have asked Doty to put that money in escrow and for more than $707 million in damages, too.
The two sides also met for 16 days earlier this year before talks fell apart March 11 and the lockout began. Boylan presided over four days of mediation last month with no signs of progress.
Separately, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce business lobbying group filed a brief Tuesday supporting the league.
The chamber, like the NFL, noted that the dispute is currently before the National Labor Relations Board in the form of an unfair labor negotiations charge against the players. Until then, the chamber said, the court fight should be on hold and the NFL should be able to lock out its players if needed.
“For the collective bargaining process to work as Congress intended, the parties to the dispute must largely be left by the courts to their own devices,” the chamber said. “The prospect of self-help forces the parties to make difficult choices” with the option of judges coming to their aid.”
The NHL, which could face its own labor problem next year, earlier filed a similar brief supporting the NFL.
Information from ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter and The Associated Press was used in this report.