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League, players hold three-day summit; Friday court date next

ST. LOUIS -- The NFL's labor situation has been on hold for weeks while Friday's lockout-injunction hearing at the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals loomed.

It seems the league and players grew a little restless.

The parties secretly met Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in suburban Chicago in an effort to break the nearly three-month-long stalemate in negotiations.

Owners Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys), Robert Kraft (New England Patriots), Jerry Richardson (Carolina Panthers), Art Rooney (Pittsburgh Steelers) and John Mara (New York Giants) -- all members of the NFL's labor committee -- were in attendance, as were active players Mike Vrabel, Brian Dawkins, Tony Richardson and Jeff Saturday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith and NFLPA president Kevin Mawae.

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The league and players issued a joint statement confirming they had met, but they said they would honor a court-ordered confidentiality agreement.

Smith and Goodell declined to comment to the Chicago Tribune on Thursday when seen leaving Hotel Baker in St. Charles, Ill. All Jones would say about the meeting is: "We can't make a comment about it at all, but we're trying. We're trying. I think the fact that we're meeting is good."

One player, whom the Tribune didn't identify, said the point of the get-together was for the parties to talk without lawyers present.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan also attended the three-day summit, but sources said it was in a different role than he served in leading court-ordered mediation in April and May. After three days of what Boylan called "confidential settlement discussions," he canceled mediation scheduled for next Tuesday and Wednesday in Minneapolis in an effort to keep the sensitive talks private.

Friday's appeals-court hearing will go on, though, and a large player presence is expected. While Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning -- superstar plaintiffs in the antitrust lawsuit against the league -- likely won't make the trip because of prior engagements, between 20 and 30 active players are expected to attended, including other named plaintiffs such as New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora and Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robison.

Among those already in town Thursday were a four-man contingent from the Kansas City Chiefs -- Rudy Niswanger, Brian Waters, Jon McGraw and Andy Studebaker -- as well as New York Jets teammates Richardson and Brandon Moore and Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith.

Conversely, Goodell and general counsel Jeff Pash aren't expected to attend the hearing, nor are any owners. The league's contingent was made up entirely of lawyers for the last two big court dates, April 6 in St. Paul and May 12 in Minneapolis.

The appeal court's ruling is expected to create major leverage points and help push along negotiations.

The players want the lockout-lifting injunction, issued by U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson, upheld. That seems unlikely based on the opinion written by the appeals court's three-judge panel in its late April issuance of a stay of Nelson's decision, which preserved the owners' right to lock out the players.

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The owners want the injunction lifted and also have made overtures at having the antitrust suit dismissed.

Of the three judges on the panel, two -- William Duane Benton and Steven Colloton -- were appointed by George W. Bush. The other, Clinton appointee Kermit Bye, will run the hearing as the senior judge presiding. He was the lone dissenter on the court's decision to grant the league's request for the stay.

Ben Leber, one of 10 plaintiffs in the antitrust case against the league, said the players haven't discussed a specific drop-dead date for reaching an agreement to ensure the on-time start of training camps, which normally would open in about seven weeks. But he said it's necessary to have one in order to reach a deal.

"Both sides have a day, whether they want to make it public or not," Leber told The Associated Press. "The biggest challenge is going to lie with whose day is going to come up first. Once it got to this point, I think it was just a good guess based on most corporate labor disputes that nothing was going to get done until the 11th hour. Now it depends on which 11th hour gets here first."

New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper told The AP that he hasn't heard of specific drop-dead dates being discussed, but he believes by start of August, "something has to be etched in stone," as far a new agreement.

"It looks bleak right now, but I'm thinking that something has to get worked out because too many people will be affected negatively if it does not get worked out," Sharper said.

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said last week at the NFL Spring Meeting that he believed some decisions on opening training camps in late July needed to be made by July 4.

NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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