NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith opened a four-day labor discussion in Minnesota, then hopped on a plane to Florida to speak to rookie players.
Spokesmen for the league and the players' association confirmed Tuesday night to The Associated Press that Goodell and Smith were on the same plane from Minnesota to address players at the NFLPA-run rookie symposium. Smith asked Goodell to speak to the players Wednesday morning at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Sarasota, Fla., and the commissioner agreed.
Goodell and Smith plan to leave Florida later Wednesday to fly back to Minneapolis and continue the labor talks, which have taken on a decidedly different look.
Goodell and Smith are accompanied only by their staffs, rather than members of each constituency, and owners and players aren't expected to directly participate, although they will remain apprised of any developments. The parties' legal teams are expected to trade proposals on the framework of a settlement, in an effort to move the process toward conclusion, and they will intensify their focus on the key issues, most notably the revenue split.
The four-day, face-to-face session will be the longest yet. The previous longest session was the first one, held May 31 through June 2 near a private airport in suburban Chicago. Subsequent meetings on New York's Long Island, Maryland's Eastern Shore and Massachusetts' South Shore each lasted two days.
The changing time frame surrounding this set of talks and the shifting cast of characters -- the first "secret" meetings only included Goodell, Smith, owners, players and U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan -- are seen as part of the process of negotiating a new agreement to end a lockout that's in its fourth month.
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, could come soon, too. The time frame on such decisions from an appeals court generally is 30 to 45 days, and the hearing 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 announced.
The St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears, who are scheduled to play in the preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 7, are set to open training camp just three weeks from Friday, and time is beginning to run short on the parties' negotiating teams as they look to preserve the preseason in its traditional form. Some have suggested July 15 as the deadline for that to happen.
The parties have spent the past four weeks largely discussing the revenue split, an issue that dwarfs all others. It's not just the revenue now, but also how to account for the players' take in the league's future growth, particularly when the next round of television deals are negotiated for 2014 and beyond. 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.
The parties broached the rookie pay system for the first time during clandestine sessions Thursday, and it also proved to be a difficult area to navigate. Last year's No. 1 overall draft pick, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, received about $50 million guaranteed in his rookie deal, and the owners have long looked to drastically mark down price tags like this.
The numbers aren't the only issue. Finding a way to replace the market effect those contracts have on veterans and getting those high picks to free agency quicker are among the players' concerns. Currently, six-year contracts are allowed for the high first-round picks making big money.
Last week, one team executive told NFL Network that owners and players were within "striking distance" of a deal, but that nothing was close or imminent. But another involved executive said: "There are enough legitimate issues to where it could all fall down still. They're dealing with that stuff."
After last week's meeting at a beachside resort in Hull, Mass., Goodell and Smith emerged together and provided a symbolic moment in the joint effort toward a resolution.
"Someone asked me if I was optimistic -- I think we're both optimistic when we have the right people in the room," Smith said. "We know we're talking about the right issues, and we're working hard to get it done. It's extremely complicated. It requires a lot of hard work by a lot of people. But we're committed to getting something done. And we're gonna keep working at it."
Said Goodell: "We are under court order, as far as what we can discuss. Obviously we're all working hard, the players and owners were here over the last few days, and De and I were here for the entire meetings also. And it's complicated and it's complex, but we're working hard. We understand the fans' frustration, but I think both of us feel strongly that we're going to continue to work hard on it."
Goodell and Smith have been joined by Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, New York Giants owner John Mara, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson, Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth and Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, as well as Boylan, as constants in the room.
NFLPA president Kevin Mawae, who has been in some talks, attended the trade association's rookie seminar Tuesday and said roughly 170 players were participating in the event. Mawae also addressed more than 40 Tampa Bay Buccaneers players who are holding a three day minicamp at the vast IMG Academy campus, where the NFLPA event is being held.
The Associated Press and NFL.com senior writer Steve Wyche contributed to this report.