MINNEAPOLIS -- Court-ordered mediation between the NFL and locked-out players lasted another five hours Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan adjourned talks until May 16.
The sides met for 26 total hours over four days, trying to settle the consolidated Brady et al v. National Football League et al and Eller et al v. National Football League et al antitrust cases. It was the first set of face-to-face talks between the sides in 34 days, and the next break is set to encompass another 26 days.
|NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (left) and Packers CEO Mark Murphy arrive for Wednesday's mediation session, the last until May 16. (Jim Mone/Associated Press)|
"We're going to be back here on May 16 to continue the mediation, and I think everybody thinks it was helpful," NFL Players Association outside counsel Jim Quinn said. "And that's really where we are."
When asked for the reason for the almost-monthlong break in talks, Quinn responded, "That's what the judge wanted, and we follow what the judge wants."
The next step in the process should come shortly, with Judge Susan Nelson due to rule on the players' request for an injunction to lift the NFL lockout. Also scheduled before the resumption of mediation is the May 12 hearing on the fate of the television-revenue case, over which U.S. District Judge David Doty will preside.
"There are a lot of uncertainties right now," NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said as the league-imposed lockout hit its 40th day. "When we're back together, we'll know more. People's legal positions will be clearer. The network case is not a major factor, has never been a major factor, as far as our thinking goes.
"But we'll be back here ready to make a deal, because that's the only way that we're going to solve this problem, by having a comprehensive labor agreement, by setting out all the terms, addressing all the issues and getting it wrapped up so we're not spending all our time in court."
Nelson emphasized April 6 that she will rule on the players' motion for an injunction to lift the NFL lockout in "due course," and that decision has loomed over these talks. She said at the time that she expected to rule in "a couple weeks." It now has been two weeks.
Over the four days of mediation, seven of the 10 members of the league's labor committee made appearances, with co-chairman Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers and Pat Bowlen of the Denver Broncos joined by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy the last two days. Commissioner Roger Goodell also was part of the league's contingent, as were Broncos president Joe Ellis and Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith returned to the talks Wednesday after tending to a family emergency Tuesday, and current players Mike Vrabel and Ben Leber also were in attendance, as they have been throughout this mediation.
Goodell said all parties involved remain committed to ending the league's first work stoppage since 1987.
"I think fans want solution. I want solutions," he said. "I think the players want solutions, and I think the teams want solutions. That's why we have to be working at it in negotiations and figuring out how to get to that point."
Pash wouldn't delve into the condition of talks between the league and players.
"You can't measure this like a stock table, what's going up or down on any given day. But it's always a positive to be able to talk to people," Pash said. "I don't think it's ever too early to talk, I don't think it's ever too early to state positions, and sometimes you have to state them multiple times and you have to really listen to the other side multiple times.
"I think this was a valuable process, I don't think a single minute of it was wasted time, and I think the effort and the sincerity and the creativity that the chief magistrate judge brought to the process was exemplary and is going to be very helpful to us down the road."
The NFL released its 2011 regular-season schedule after Tuesday's mediation session, and Goodell has maintained an optimistic tone. He spoke to New York Giants season-ticket holders Wednesday in a conference call during a break in mediation, telling them, "We're planning to play a full season, and we're going to negotiate as hard as we can to get that done."
The NFL's season is scheduled to open Sept. 8, with the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers hosting the New Orleans Saints, and that's less than five months away, with free agency, trades and other roster decisions still up in the air with the lockout in place.
"We have to identify the solutions and get it done," Goodell said. "It is tough for me to project. We're going to continue to make the preparations for the season and work as hard as we can to solve those issues in advance so we can play every game and every down of the season."
Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller, the lead plantiff in one of the antitrust cases against the league, echoed Goodell's optimism, even with talks now shelved for nearly a month.
"I do feel very positive about the 2011 season, and I think everybody has come here with the idea of having a 2011 season, and it's just not been easy to get to that point," Eller said. "I think everybody is working hard to that goal, and seeing them work to that end makes me much more optimistic. I would certainly say we're going to have a 2011 season."
There could be a fourth set of lawyers and players at the mediation table next time, with a Philadelphia law firm talking to another group of players about joining the fight.
"We've had discussions about representing some additional players who want to have a voice in the matter," said Bryan Clobes of Cafferty Faucher.
The Sports Business Journal reported that a group of about 70 "mid-tier" players was considering hiring a law firm and upset that the talks broke off last month. But Clobes said the number is "nowhere near 70" and that it doesn't indicate any dissatisfaction with the way things are progressing.
"The players have extremely capable counsel," Clobes said. "If we were to get involved, it would be so we could add and lend our expertise, not because we thought the current lawyers were not doing a credible job. They're doing an incredible job."
Smith said he was unaware of the report, and Vrabel said he hadn't heard of it, either, although he did say that players "do have a seat, with Ben and me."
"That's why we're here," Vrabel said. "... We're players here to represent the players, and De works for us. They do (have a seat). And I think if they're unhappy with that seat, we have to vote in a new executive committee and a new board of reps."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.