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Lawyers work on labor deal; owners, players to join Thursday

NEW YORK -- Staff and legal teams for NFL owners and players met for nearly 11 hours Wednesday, going into the evening with larger meetings looming.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, owners, players and U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan will join the group Thursday, and the clock is ticking to reach a labor deal that would save the preseason -- and the hundreds of millions in revenue that come with it.

Among those in attendance at Wednesday's talks were NFL outside counsel Bob Batterman, NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler and NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelsen. Over the course of the day, new faces appeared. Four hours in, NFL senior vice president of law and labor policy Adolpho Birch, the league's drug czar, and senior VP of labor litigation and policy Dennis Curran arrived. Three hours after that, lawyers from the league's management council entered the Manhattan building.

According to sources, the parties took small, incremental steps necessary to completing a deal. Among the tasks were clarifying and discussing paperwork, and going over language and details.

The idea is to get legwork out of the way to smooth the process for the owners and players, who will handle the larger issues. As one person in the room put it, "There's only so much we can do."

Boylan, a key in these negotiations over the last six weeks, is scheduled to go on vacation Saturday. But two sources said it doesn't make the next two days more vital, citing the preseason revenue as the primary motivator to quickly finish a settlement as the lockout, imposed by the league March 12, lingers into the summer.

Last week, the parties closed meetings in Minneapolis having made major progress on the revenue split, a central issue in these talks, and the focus will shift this week to smaller but still significant issues that flow into that larger one.

It has been estimated that it would take between 10 and 14 days to go from an agreement to a signed document, and the idea of this week's meetings is to cut down that time and have groundwork laid to quickly move things from a settlement to the opening of training camps. The Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams, who are scheduled to play in the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame Game, are set to report to camp July 22.

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The deadline sits around July 15 to save the preseason schedule in its regular form and avert the possible loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. That loss would affect the owners' offer to the players and could poison negotiations to the point where the dispute would head back to the courts.

Two court rulings are pending -- one from U.S. Circuit Court Judge David Doty in the networks' rights-fees case and another from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the league's appeal of a lockout-lifting injunction.

Lawyers involved in negotiations believe rulings 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 Boylan to inform those courts that negotiations have broken down and there's no need to wait to reveal their rulings.

If that's indeed Boylan's hammer, he has used it effectively, reining in the sides late last week and prompting the aforementioned 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, one of the smaller issues that flows into the revenue split. The owners and players didn't settle 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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