WASHINGTON — NFL labor talks broke down just hours before the latest contract extension expired Friday. The union decertified, and players including Tom Brady and Peyton Manning sued the league, putting the country's most popular sport on a path to its first work stoppage since 1987.
Despite 16 days of negotiations with a federal mediator — and previous months of stop-and-start bargaining — the sides could not agree on a new deal. The league said it hadn't decided whether to lock out the players, who, meanwhile, went to court to request an injunction to block such a move.
"The parties have not achieved an overall agreement, nor have they been able to resolve the strongly held competing positions that separated them on core issues," mediator George Cohen said. "No useful purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue the mediation process at this time."
By dissolving and announcing it no longer represents the players in collective bargaining, the NFL Players Association cleared the way for class-action lawsuits against the NFL, which opted out of the CBA in 2008.
The CBA originally was due to expire last week, then was extended twice, in hopes that the sides could find common ground on the key issues: how to divide more than $9 billion in annual revenues, and how much financial information the league would be willing to turn over.
It all set the stage for a lengthy court fight that eventually could threaten the 2011 season. The last work stoppage came when the players struck 24 years ago, leading to games with replacement players.
The NFLPA also decertified in 1989. Antitrust lawsuits by players led to a new CBA in 1993 that included free agency, and the union formed again that year.
"We met with the owners until about 4 o'clock today," union head DeMaurice Smith said outside the mediator's office. "We discussed a proposal they had presented. At this time, significant differences continue to remain. We informed the owners that ... if there was going to be a request for an extension, that we asked for 10 years of audited financial information to accompany that extension."
About 15 minutes later, the union decertified.
"No one is happy where we are now," NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said. "I think we know where the commitment was. It was a commitment to litigate all along."
A league statement added: "The union left a very good deal on the table."
It said the offer included splitting the difference in the dispute over how much money owners should be given off the top of the league's revenues. Under the expiring CBA, the owners immediately got about $1 billion before dividing the remainder with the players; the owners originally were asking to roughly double that by getting an additional $1 billion up front.
Also in the NFL's offer, according to the league:
— Maintaining the 16 regular-season games and four preseason games for at least two years, with any changes negotiable.
— Instituting a rookie wage scale through which money saved would be paid to veterans and retired players.
— Creating new year-round health and safety rules.
— Establishing a fund for retired players, with $82 million contributed by the owners over the next two years.
— Financial disclosure of audited league and club profitability information that is not even shared with the NFL clubs. That was proposed by the NFL this week, and rejected by the union, which began insisting in May 2009 for a complete look at the books of all 32 clubs.
The players' union immediately shut down its websites, NFLPA.org and NFLPlayers.com. A search for NFLPA.org yielded this message: "Error 404: Football Not Found. Please be patient as we work on resolving this. We are sorry for the inconvenience."
When Commissioner Roger Goodell, Pash, and owners Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, Jerry Richardson of the Panthers and John Mara of the Giants emerged from Cohen's office shortly after 5 p.m., they sounded hopeful that negotiations would soon resume.
"We are prepared to come back here any time the union is ready to come back here," Pash said.