MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — NFL owners and players and their legal counsel have returned to court for another round of mediation.
Commissioner Roger Goodell arrived Tuesday morning with other league leaders, and other owners entered the courthouse in separate small groups. Linebacker Mike Vrabel showed up shortly before attorneys for the players.
This is the sixth day of talks with U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan.
After a series of stinging rebukes in court, the NFL has a significant, favorable ruling in hand. The same three-judge panel that sided with the league to keep the lockout in place will hear arguments next month on the legality of the NFL’s first work stoppage in nearly 24 years. The hearing at the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will be June 3 in St. Louis.
With restlessness and uncertainty surrounding the league with the start of training camps a little more than two months away, the players could be in a tricky place. The appellate court’s ruling gave strong indication it will side with the NFL in this fight over the division and future of the ever-popular professional sport.
DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, sounded defiant outside the courthouse in Minneapolis on Monday despite the 2-1 decision from the three-judge panel.
“We look forward to the argument. Look: This is something that the players are prepared for,” Smith said. “It’s a disappointment obviously, but as far as we can tell this is the first sports league in history who sued to not play its game. Congratulations.”
The owners want to stay out of court, blaming the players for preferring litigation. The players claim they’re only interested in playing and that the owners are preventing them and fans from enjoying the game.
“We have an opportunity to resolve this matter and get the game back on the field, and that really should be our exclusive focus,” NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said.
Goodell, speaking to Buffalo Bills season ticket holders on a conference call, said he thinks there’s “still time” to strike a new collective bargaining agreement.
“But time is running short. It’s time to get back to the table and get those issues resolved,” Goodell said.
NFLPA president Kevin Mawae said he was disappointed with the 8th Circuit’s decision.
“The ruling in granting the stay of the injunction means that the NFL owners can continue to not let football be played,” he said.
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, and this order was a more permanent stay of her ruling.
“Both sides raise valid points, and this is a case in which one party or the other likely will suffer some degree of irreparable harm no matter how this court resolves the motion for a stay pending appeal,” the majority wrote. “We do not agree, however, with the district court’s apparent view that the balance of the equities tilts heavily in favor of the Players. The district court gave little or no weight to the harm caused to the League by an injunction issued in the midst of an ongoing dispute over terms and conditions of employment.”
The appellate court 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.”
The two sides met for more than eight hours before Boylan on Monday, the first time since April 20. Neither side would elaborate on the discussions, citing the judge’s confidentiality order. Michael Hausfeld, an attorney for the retired players who joined the antitrust lawsuit against the league, said the players were reviewing a new proposal from the owners.
“It probably is not one that would be acceptable as is, but it clearly opens a dialogue,” Hausfeld said.
That’s at least a sign of some progress in the talks, which went on for 16 days in Washington without an agreement before they picked up in Minneapolis at Nelson’s order.
But with matters still pending in the court, significant movement in positions seems unlikely.
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.
“The district court reasoned that this case does not involve or grow out of a labor dispute because the players no longer are represented by a union,” the majority wrote. “We have considerable doubt about this interpretation.”
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