MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Joined by a handful of owners and players, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith resumed talks Thursday aimed at ending the lockout with a new collective bargaining agreement.
The group met at a Minneapolis law firm with U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan. The participants, including New York Giants owner John Mara and Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, declined comment as they arrived. The meetings were expected to continue Friday.
The latest round of negotiations between the two sides — the fifth since they began hopping from city to city for clandestine meetings — kicked off Tuesday with Goodell, Smith, their attorneys and staffs but no owners or players.
Joining the discussion Thursday were Mara and fellow owners Clark Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots. Saturday was accompanied by Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Brian Waters and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth.
The location is significant because Minneapolis is where the players have filed a still-pending federal antitrust suit against the owners and the sides tried and failed to strike an agreement through court-ordered mediation under Boylan.
The two power brokers spent part of Wednesday in Florida. Smith invited Goodell to an orientation session for NFL rookies — put on by the players’ association after the NFL canceled the event — and the pair flew to Florida on Tuesday night. After a joint breakfast Wednesday, they talked for an hour with 155 rookies.
“We felt it was important to be down here with the players,” Goodell said. “This is an important few days. We’re going to get back to work.”
Smith and Goodell certainly seem closer than when the lockout began March 12. Whether that will translate into a new deal is the big question. Training camps are scheduled to open in three weeks with the Hall of Fame exhibition game on Aug. 7.
Owners and players are seeking a deal that would divide revenues for the $9 billion business — the biggest hurdle to clear — and guide league activities for years to come. Goodell and Smith didn’t have a direct answer when asked by the rookies when the impasse will end. Still, their joint appearance was seen as a positive sign.
“That’s really the significance of this,” NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah said. “There’s a lockout happening now, but we’ve got to look forward and consider the necessity to have a positive working relationship with the league.”
Quarterback Christian Ponder, a first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, said Goodell urged the rookies to be ready, whenever the lockout is lifted.
“The biggest thing he hammered home is we really have no idea when this thing is going to end,” Ponder said. “But us rookies have to prepare for it. It’s going to end at some point. As rookies it’s our job to be prepared. Yeah, we’ve missed some practices, but we can’t change that.”
Ponder added that players are “hurting for money right now.”
“It’s a crazy time, especially with the uncertainty of when we’re going to start and get some money in our pocket,” he said.
Smith said both sides are “continuing to work hard” to keep the 2011 season intact. He called the question-and-answer session with rookies “important to ensure our young men appreciated how important we think these few days are.”
The legal fight includes a group of retirees led by Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller, who has been actively trying to secure better benefits and medical care from the league.
Eller and his attorneys were part of the court-ordered mediation sessions — six days in all — in Boylan’s chambers in April and May, and Eller met with Goodell and some owners in Chicago earlier this month.
Shawn Stuckey, one of the attorneys for Eller’s group, said the retirees have been disappointed to not be more involved, citing a ruling by U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson that the two cases be combined.
“We’re well within our rights to object and say these mediation sessions are not consistent with what Judge Nelson ordered,” he said. “However, we feel one of the best ways to get a resolution is to let the active players reach a resolution, and then we can reach a resolution on our issues.”
Stuckey indicated, however, that Eller’s group doesn’t want to be left out.
“If the active players and the league are serious about getting football under way soon, they’ve got to start negotiating with the retirees,” he said.
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