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Labor talks continue; union was near decertifying Thursday

WASHINGTON -- The NFL and the NFL Players Association met for a 12th day of federal mediation Monday, staging face-to-face negotiations with the now-twice-moved expiration of the collective bargaining agreement still looming.

The two sides didn't arrive at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service building until 3 p.m. ET, to allow for travel, and they finished just after 7 p.m. Mediator George H. Cohen broke the sides for the evening, and the league and the players' union were expected to meet amongst themselves. Cohen also reserved the right to call them back Monday night.

The league and the union are expected to return to the FMCS building Tuesday at 9 a.m.

The CBA expires Friday at 11:59 p.m. It originally was scheduled to expire last Thursday, but that deadline was moved to last Friday after a 24-hour extension. It was pushed back another week after Friday's meeting.

The league and the players' union met for seven consecutive days starting Feb. 18, and then for four days in a row last week. The plan now is to meet every day this week.

The NFL's contingent Monday included just one owner, John Mara of the New York Giants, but the league has been holding regular conference calls with its 10-man labor committee. The NFLPA had Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel, New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson, Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, as well as retired players Pete Kendall and Cornelius Bennett, in its group.

Serious differences remain in how to divide the $9.3 billion in total revenue that the NFL pulls in, and it took serious work for the league and the union even to agree to continue these talks.

On the afternoon of March 3, according to league and union sources, the NFLPA had two staff members make the two-block walk from the union office to the FMCS building to hand-deliver copies of all the necessary decertification paperwork as the deadline to file neared. The documents were signed by union officials, copies were provided for each league official in attendance, and the union was in contact with Judge David Doty, who maintains jurisdiction until the current CBA expires, and whose court would handle the filings.

The union was within minutes of pulling the trigger, according to sources, and pulled back just before the clock hit zero.

And beyond just that, the union initially resisted on terms of a weeklong extension, which forced the sides to take the extra 24 hours late last week to hammer out an agreement to continue talks. The union insisted on specific language, leery that the league would use delay tactics, and was met with strong opposition.

Eventually, the league and the union worked out their differences, and that will allow talks to continue.

The precarious nature of these talks is underscored by the union's readiness to decertify and send this battle from the boardroom to the courtroom, where a lengthy, drawn-out antitrust suit is likely to await.

According to sources on both sides, the aforementioned momentum built Wednesday and Thursday of last week was slowed by looming pressure on the union to decertify before the end of business Thursday, which was another factor leading to the 24-hour extension.

At one point on Wednesday, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, according to a league source, attempted to slow the runaway train to union decertification by striking a point he has repeated through the process, that it was "time to the get the lawyers out of the room" and "let the business people do a deal."

The idea of keeping the battle in the boardroom, rather than the courtroom, is one the league has advocated throughout this negotiation. Union decertification before the CBA expiring likely would lead to an antitrust case heard before Doty.

"This is going to get resolved through negotiations, not litigation," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said on Friday. "Talking is better than litigating."

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