League, union meet in D.C., try mediation in labor talks

WASHINGTON -- Representatives from the NFL and the NFL Players Association met for about seven hours in front of a federal mediator Friday, kicking off an effort to break their labor-talk stalemate just two weeks before the collective bargaining agreement expires.

Talks were held at the office of Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independent U.S. government agency, and both sides' bargaining teams began arriving before 11 a.m. ET. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith wouldn't comment before entering the meeting with FMCS director George H. Cohen.

"We're going to work with Mr. Cohen and whatever process he wants to put in place," said Jeff Pash, the league's lead labor negotiator.

Goodell, Pash and NFL outside counsel Bob Batterman arrived at the meeting at 10:35 a.m., followed about 15 minutes later by Smith, union general counsel Richard Berthelsen, Pittsburgh Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch and NFLPA executive committee member Jim McFarland.

NFLPA spokesman George Atallah declined comment before the meeting, other than to say, "Give peace a chance." Batch emerged from the meeting at 3 p.m. and said: "Can't say anything."

That's because both sides, as revealed in a joint statement issued two hours after they arrived, agreed to Cohen's request that they "refrain from making public comments about any aspect of the mediation process."

Smith also declined comment when he left the building at 6:15 p.m. Goodell and Pash left through another exit.

The sides have agreed to seven consecutive days of negotiations, a league source said Thursday.

Cohen announced Thursday that the sides had agreed to have him participate in talks. Mediation isn't binding.

Cohen was involved in Major League Soccer's negotiations with its players' union last year, when a possible work stoppage was avoided. Cohen also has worked with the players' associations for Major League Baseball, helping end the 1994-95 strike as a consulting attorney, and the NBA, and he was an advisor to the NHL players' union before joining the FMCS.

The FMCS also became involved in negotiations during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, and a 2005 dispute between the U.S. Soccer Federation and its players.

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The NFL's current collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the day March 3, and the union has said it expects owners to lock out players as soon as the next day. The CBA was signed in 2006, but owners exercised an opt-out clause in 2008.

News of the start of mediation could be a positive sign after several months of infrequent negotiations.

The league and union went more than two months without holding any formal bargaining sessions, until a meeting Feb. 5, the day before the Super Bowl. The sides met again once last week but called off a second meeting that had been scheduled for the following day.

The biggest issue separating the sides is how to divide about $9 billion in annual revenues. Among the other significant points in negotiations: the owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games, a rookie wage scale and benefits for retired players.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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