MINNEAPOLIS — NFL owners and their locked-out players are talking again.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, executive vice president Jeff Pash and four team owners — Mike Brown, John Mara, Jerry Richardson and Art Rooney — arrived at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis on Monday morning along with legal counsel.
The head of the NFL Players Association, DeMaurice Smith, and three other lawyers for the players were present for their side for the closed-door session before U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan on the division and future of the ever-popular $9 billion business.
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 on hand for retired players.
Boylan presided over four days of mediation last month with no signs of progress. The two sides also met for 16 days earlier this year before talks fell apart March 11 and the lockout began.
Since then, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson ordered the lockout lifted because it's irreparably harming the players and their careers. Days later, on an appeal from the league, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put Nelson's ruling on hold and has yet to decide whether to issue a more permanent stay.
The appeals court in St. Louis has a hearing in the case set for June 3.
Also pending is an order from U.S. District Judge David Doty on 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 financial padding for the work stoppage. Even if a lockout prevents games from being televised, the league would still get paid.
The players have asked Doty to set that money aside in escrow and for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, too.
The hearing in Doty's courtroom in Minneapolis last week was mostly lawyers arguing back and forth, but each side accused the other of "sandbagging" and neither sounded as if it's ready to concede any ground.
With all these potential momentum swings still unsettled in the court system, significant progress toward a new collective bargaining agreement and a full 2011 season seems unlikely.
"We'd like to make progress, but it'll be hard to do. We have to wait to see what happens June 3," Rooney said before Monday's session began.
Bob Berliner, a Chicago attorney who runs the Berliner Group mediation service, called the uncertainty the "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.
The NFL avoided a chaotic free agency free-for-all when the 8th Circuit slapped the stay on Nelson's ruling and prevented the league year — meaning sanctioned offseason workouts, signings and trades — from beginning. Still, the players may have been emboldened by the earlier court victories and are even less willing to budge.
Eller helped organize a meeting of 10 retired players on Sunday, with Brent Boyd, Irv Cross, Tony Davis, Nolan Harrison, Jim McFarland, Jeff Nixon, Dave Pear, Bob Stein and Shawn Stuckey also present. Another meeting is scheduled for next week in Chicago with former Bears coach Mike Ditka.
"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.
Goodell has continually spread the league's message of desiring these face-to-face negotiations to reach a new deal as opposed to letting the process play out in court, where the players have fared better.
"We come into this mediation session with every hope and intent to make them productive," Goodell said last week. "If there aren't two parties there willing to negotiate — they are not willing to address the issues in a negotiation and they are sitting and waiting for their litigation strategy — it's not likely that they're going to be productive."
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York contributed to this report.
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