MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — NFL owners and their locked-out players are talking again.
The two sides in the bitter fight over the future of the $9 billion business resumed court-ordered mediation behind closed doors Monday. It was the fifth day of talks in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, but the first since April 20.
Significant steps toward a new collective bargaining agreement or guarantees of a full 2011 season seemed unlikely, not with the ongoing court fight and a big hearing on the legality of the lockout set for early next month before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We’d like to make progress, but it’ll be hard to do. We have to wait to see what happens June 3,” Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II said on his way into the federal courthouse here.
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 and is scheduled to host the two sides again Tuesday.
With training camps just two months away and the regular season opener only 115 days from now, there is restlessness around the league to go with all the uncertainty.
Players have organized their own workouts to keep in touch and stay in shape, though most of the drafted rookies don’t have playbooks and the college free agents who’ve normally signed contracts by now have no idea where or when they’ll go to camp.
Minnesota Vikings free safety Mistral Raymond, a sixth-round draft pick, tweeted Monday that the lockout has left him with “too much free time,” so he’s decided to go back to school and “get closer” to his degree at South Florida.
Indianapolis defensive end Robert Mathis recently tweeted that he thought NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has “totally lost his players during this whole process.”
The man who signs his checks, Colts owner Jim Irsay, also sounded discouraged in a stream of posts on his Twitter page Monday. Irsay complained about the arguing and the spin, and claimed he and Colts center Jeff Saturday, one of the leading advocates for the players, could get an agreement on cocktail napkins over a long lunch.
Irsay suggested that players and owners fine themselves every week after July 15 there is no new CBA.
“Get out of the courts!” Irsay tweeted.
A lot has happened since the last set of court-ordered talks, none of it encouraging to football fans.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson lifted the lockout on April 25, leading to two somewhat awkward days where players were allowed to return to their teams before the 8th Circuit put her order on hold right in the middle of the NFL draft.
The appellate court has not ruled on the NFL’s request to make the stay permanent and most attention has instead shifted to the June 3 hearing on the legality of the lockout.
At the same time, 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.
Goodell, executive vice president Jeff Pash and four team owners — Rooney, Mike Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals, John Mara of the New York Giants and Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers — were on hand with their legal team for Monday’s session with Boylan.
The head of the NFL Players Association, DeMaurice Smith, and three other lawyers for the players were present for their side. Linebacker Ben Leber, one of the players listed as a plaintiff in the still-pending federal antitrust lawsuit against the league, also attended. Hall of Famer Carl Eller and attorneys were there representing the retired players.
Bob Berliner, a Chicago attorney who runs the Berliner Group mediation service, called the uncertainty “currency” at the mediator’s disposal.
“It should make people more likely to want to come to an agreement, but my guess is it’s made them less,” he said.
Eller, meanwhile, said he helped organize a meeting of 10 fellow retirees over the weekend and another meeting is scheduled for next week in Chicago with former Bears coach Mike Ditka. Retired players have already joined the antitrust lawsuit against the NFL and the meetings were portrayed as an effort to unify.
“This galvanizes all the different groups, puts aside whatever differences there may have been and concentrates on the commonalities of the issues and shortcomings of the present system,” said Michael Hausfeld, an attorney who represents the retired players.
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