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Pressure mounts as legal teams return to labor negotiations

NEW YORK -- The legal teams and staffs for NFL owners and players met for 7½ hours Tuesday in Manhattan, with the pace quickening and deadlines approaching as the lockout nears its fifth month.

Among the headliners were NFL Players Association outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler and general counsel Richard Berthelsen, and NFL outside counsel Bob Batterman and senior vice president of law and labor policy Adolpho Birch.

The parties filtered in before 10 a.m. ET and left in the 5 p.m. hour, with league officials staying behind and working into the early evening to prep for Wednesday's meeting, which will take on a similar format to Tuesday's session. The idea is clear away some of the underbrush, taking care of details and language in a potential agreement, so the path to a settlement will be more defined when the principles agree on larger issues.

Players, owners, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell are scheduled to rejoin talks Thursday and Friday.

Time indeed is running short, and this set of discussions is crucial, following negotiations May 31-June 2 in suburban Chicago, June 7-8 on New York's Long Island, June 14-15 on Maryland's Eastern Shore, June 22-23 on Massachusetts' South Shore and June 27-July 1 in Minneapolis.

The widely held belief is that an agreement must be reached on or around July 15 to save the preseason in its natural form. The league projects the cancellation of the preseason would cost it nearly $1 billion in revenue, and although the players believe that figure is inflated, there's little question that significant dollars would be removed from the pie the parties have struggled to split. That in turn would affect the owners' offer to the players and could poison the negotiations.

Then there's the issue of rulings pending from U.S. Circuit Court Judge David Doty in the networks' rights-fees case and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the league's appeal of a lockout-lifting injunction. Lawyers involved in negotiations believe rulings and opinions in the cases have been finalized but that neither Doty nor the 8th Circuit judges, who previously implored the league and players to work out their differences themselves, want to issue them. The failure of talks, this line of thinking goes, could lead U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan to inform the courts that negotiations have broken down and there's no need to wait.

If that's indeed Boylan's hammer, he has used it effectively, reining in the sides late last week and prompting major progress on the revenue split, the central issue in this entire dispute. In that time, many of the "fringe" demands -- deemed unacceptable by one side or the other -- fell off the table as well, clearing the way for more productive talks.

One remaining issue is retired players' benefits. The owners and players hadn't settled the funding for such benefits late last week, and a group of retired players -- led by Carl Eller -- filed a lawsuit in a Minneapolis court Monday seeking to halt the ongoing negotiations and keep the active players from representing them in that setting.

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