MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The NFL and its locked-out players launched a second round of mediation Thursday, this time under a court order to try and figure out a solution to their labor dispute.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft were among those on hand for the closed-door session at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith was joined by attorneys, linebackers Ben Leber and Mike Vrabel, as well as Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller. Smith greeted reporters as he approached the building, but he didn’t respond to questions. Asked about his hope for the session as he hustled to the entrance, Vrabel smiled and joked that he just hoped he wasn’t late.
The meeting stretched late into the afternoon and the two sides brought in sandwiches.
It was the first time the two sides have sat down to talk since March 11, when the old collective bargaining agreement expired, the union was dissolved to clear the way for a court fight and the NFL wound up with its first work stoppage since the monthlong strike in 1987.
With the lockout at 33 days and counting and the 2011 season in peril, U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan is overseeing this round of mediation. Sixteen days of mediated sessions in Washington failed to secure a new labor pact.
League officials, led by executive vice president Jeff Pash, met with Boylan for about five hours Wednesday. Lawyers for the players met with Boylan for about four hours Tuesday.
Goodell declined to comment as the group entered the courthouse. Pash said: “The only way we’re going to get this whole set of issues resolved is by negotiating.”
Eller said he was hopeful of progress.
“I’m a fan, too. We would like to ease their minds,” Eller said.
Goodell stepped away from the session to join a teleconference with 5,300 Cleveland Browns season-ticket holders for 20 minutes. He would not characterize the negotiations, which are supposed to remain confidential, but did reiterate the importance of the sides getting together.
“I can tell you that it’s a positive step when the parties are talking,” he said. “We saw the March 11 proposal as responsive to issues raised by the players and there are many attractive elements in it. … Our entire focus is on getting a deal done.”
Goodell said the league hopes to release its schedule for next season within the next 10 days and plans to play “a full season.” Goodell also said there are no plans to use replacement players as the league did in 1987 and that the Super Bowl in Indianapolis could be pushed back one week or the two-week gap after the conference championships could be shortened to one if necessary.
But Goodell’s main message to fans was to assure them they would see the Browns play next season.
“We’re going to make sure we have football, and more of it,” he said.
Goodell held a similar session Wednesday with Dolphins season-ticket holders. During that call, he stressed the league’s goal of keeping player costs under control and, in response to a question about financial transparency, said the NFL’s disclosure has been “extraordinary.” He insisted the players know “the revenue down to the penny,” a reference to the union’s push for the league to open the books.
“We want them to be informed,” Goodell said. “We want to make sure they understand why we have the issues that we need to address.”
The mediation is the first positive step in the dispute in more than a month, but the league and players still must agree on how to divide more than $9 billion in annual revenue.
The owners initially wanted to double the money they get off the top for expenses from about $1 billion to about $2 billion, but that number dropped during the last round of mediation
Other major issues included benefits for retired players and the NFL’s desire to stretch the regular season from 16 to 18 games. The NFL also wants to cut almost 60 percent of guaranteed pay for first-round draft picks, lock them in for five years and divert the savings to veterans’ salaries and benefits.
More than $525 million went to first-rounders in guaranteed payments in 2010. The league wants to decrease that figure by $300 million, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
“We have been very clear that we think the rookie compensation system needs to be adjusted,” Goodell told the Miami ticket-holders. “We think the money should be going to the proven veterans, not the untested rookies right out of the box, until you’ve proven yourself on the field.”
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who ordered the mediation, is still considering a request from the players to lift the lockout imposed by the owners. After an April 6 hearing, she said she planned to rule on the injunction request in a couple of weeks.
Players including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning filed the request along with a class-action antitrust suit against the league. The lawsuit has been combined with two other similar claims from retirees, former players and rookies-to-be.
For now, at least the two sides are talking again — even though it’s under a court order.
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