MINNEAPOLIS — Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith took their new buddy act on the road Wednesday, creating a buzz among rookies in Florida then returning to Minnesota for talks to try and end pro football's labor impasse.
The NFL commissioner and the players' boss took questions from rookies at an orientation symposium in Sarasota, Fla., where recent draft picks were glad — and relieved — to see their two surprise guests.
"Guys are hurting for money right now," said quarterback Christian Ponder, a first-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings. "It's a crazy time, especially with the uncertainty of when we're going to start and get some money in our pocket."
"It's big for them to come together. I thought that was pretty cool," he said. "It looks like they have a pretty good relationship."
Smith and Goodell certainly seem closer than when the lockout began in March. Whether that will translate into a new collective bargaining agreement is the big question. Training camps are scheduled to open in just over three weeks with the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 7.
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 in Minneapolis with Goodell, Smith, their attorneys and staffs in the room but no owners or players. People familiar with the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said owners and players planned to join Goodell and Smith for talks Thursday and Friday.
The location is significant because Minneapolis is where the players filed an antitrust suit against the owners and the sides tried and failed to strike an agreement through court-ordered mediation under U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan.
Smith invited Goodell to the orientation session for rookies — put on by the players' association after the NFL canceled the event — and the pair flew down 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."
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 so they can meet their coaches and start their careers. 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."
Ponder 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."
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. I'm thrilled Roger could come down with us and talk to the rookies in a very good, direct way."
This spring, current players were joined in their legal fight against the league by a group of retirees led by Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller, who has been actively trying to organize and unite retired players in a quest 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, while trying to be patient, also have been disappointed to not be more involved, citing the ruling by U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson that the two cases be combined.
"We want football, and we want this to come to an amicable resolution," Stuckey said. "We don't want to be in the way of an agreement. We're well within our rights to object and say these mediation sessions are not consistent with what Judge Nelson ordered. 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. Even the slight chance that the season could be delayed should be sufficient enough to motivate those guys to work with the retirees, if they're serious about actually getting football played and getting it played fast."