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NFL owners, players will rejoin Goodell, Smith in labor talks

MINNEAPOLIS -- Legal teams for the NFL and players have met for three days at a Minneapolis-area law firm under the auspices of U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, marking the first time that owners and players haven't been involved in the clandestine talks.

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But owners and players will return to the proceedings Thursday.

A number of owners and players arrived Wednesday in the Twin Cities to prepare for scheduled talks that will include NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith and the legal teams. The parties are scheduled to meet only on Thursday for now, but they're prepared to continue into Friday if it's deemed necessary to help the league-imposed lockout, which is in its fourth month.

Goodell and Smith flew together Tuesday night from Minnesota to Sarasota, Fla., to speak to assembled players at the NFLPA's rookie symposium the next morning. They returned to Minneapolis on the same plane.

Goodell was invited to the symposium by Smith, who said he was "thrilled" the commissioner accepted and participated. The men stood side by side after the visit Wednesday morning to Florida and vowed to continue working on a deal.

"What we are doing on the business of football on a macro scale is about getting a fair deal done and trying to get back to the game and business of football as quickly as possible," Smith said in a joint statement to the media. The duo didn't take questions.

Added Goodell: "We're taking a break because we felt it was important to be down here with the players. We both have great respect, obviously, for the players. This is an important few days. We're going to get back to work."

The parties have delved deep into core issues over the last week. Last Thursday, the rookie salary system was broached for the first time since the league and players started these "secret" meetings May 31, and it proved to be a difficult area to navigate. On Monday, the talks hit a snag over the overriding issue in this whole dispute -- the revenue split.

Nonetheless, the legal teams have fought through that and spent the last three days trading proposals, with an eye on pushing the process toward a conclusion.

Part of the work for each party has been managing expectations that a resolution is on the horizon. The NFLPA has warned some players that the possibility of missing games remains real.

The St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears, this year's Hall of Fame Game participants, are scheduled to open training camp just three weeks from Friday, so time is beginning to run short as the parties' negotiating teams look to preserve the preseason in its traditional form.

The parties have spent the past four weeks largely discussing the revenue split. And it's not just the revenue now, but also how to account for the league's future growth, particularly when the 2014 television deals are done, in the players' take. The idea of an "all revenue" model, which would eliminate cost credits to the owners and limit revenue projections, has bridged some differences, but the issue still hasn't been settled.

As for the rookie salary system, the numbers aren't the only issue. Finding a way to replace the market effect those contracts have on veterans and getting high draft picks to free agency quicker are among the players' concerns. As it stands, six-year contracts are allowed for high first-round picks making big money.

Thursday will mark the fourth day of negotiations between the parties this week, making it the longest stretch of continuous face-to-face talks since the clandestine meetings started. The longest previous session was the first one, held May 31 through June 2 in suburban Chicago. Subsequent meetings on New York's Long Island, Maryland's Eastern Shore and Massachusetts' South Shore each lasted two days.

Boylan ran three two-day sets of court-ordered mediation between the owners and players in April and May, and he has been present for all of the more recent meetings. His chambers are located in Minneapolis.

A decision from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the league appealed a district court's issuance of a lockout-lifting injunction, also could come soon. The time frame on such decisions from an appeals court generally is 30 to 45 days, and the hearing on the case was held June 3. However, the league and players have expressed a desire to work toward an agreement before the three-judge panel's ruling is issued.

Players at the rookie symposium were happy to see Goodell and Smith together.

"I thought that was pretty cool," said Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, a first-round draft pick. "It looks like they have a pretty good relationship."

After sharing breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where the rookie meetings were held, Goodell and Smith spoke to and took questions from players during an hour-long session. NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said the questions were "poignant" and that Goodell and Smith answered them the best they could in light of a confidentiality order regarding the labor negotiations.

"It was important that the players see this is not personal," Atallah said. "It was important that the players see that (Goodell and Smith) can work through their differences in a constructive way, and that hopefully sooner rather than later they'll be playing football."

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."

NFL.com senior writer Steve Wyche and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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