MINNEAPOLIS -- The NFL and players wrapped up a third round of court-ordered mediation on Tuesday, in the wake of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granting the league a lockout-enabling stay.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan has scheduled another two-day mediation -- with sessions set to start on June 7 at 10 a.m. and June 8 at 9 a.m. -- to begin shortly after the 8th Circuit's June 3 hearing on the appeal of Judge Susan's Nelson's decision to grant the players a lockout-lifting injunction.
"The only way we're going to get this accomplished is by face-by-face dialogue and really digging into these issues and I think we had a good step in that direction today and I hope it continues," said NFL general counsel Jeff Pash. "I'm confident it's going to continue and we'll be back early next month to continue this process. The chief judge is doing an excellent job in terms of pushing the parties to think about their positions and think about the broader issues that are at stake here."
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Worse to the players than the issuance of the stay-on-appeal was the wording in the 8th Circuit ruling, which may have foreshadowed two of the three 8th Circuit judges ruling against the players after the June 3 hearing in St. Louis. That would preserve the league's right to lock the players out for a longer, indefinite period of time, perhaps even encroaching into the season.
But retired player and named plaintiff Carl Eller told NFL Network on Tuesday that he felt this was the most productive week of mediation yet, only because the players got something tangible from the owners, in the form of a few pages of bullet-points on the league's position. Also, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith had lunch together with Boylan on Tuesday, shortly before the day's work wrapped up.
Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel, the one active player at Tuesday's mediation, said that with each passing day, "This thing becomes more real for everybody involved." As such, Vrabel said his thoughts are with the guys he's representing.
"We'll continue to meet -- owners are here, players are here," said Vrabel. "But the players that aren't here are preparing for a season. And they don't know when that's gonna be, but they're preparing for a season, and they're acting as coaches, they're acting as players and they're acting as coordinators.
"You've seen it throughout the league, guys are organizing workouts, being leaders and they've got us here to try and protect them in front of Judge Boylan."
Meanwhile, the owners have a set of meetings scheduled for next Tuesday and Wednesday in Indianapolis, which Pash emphasized will not simply be a strategy session.
"There's always business to be done, and there are a lot of other items on the agenda," said Pash. "We've got some player safety issues we held over from the March meeting and issues relating to competition committee matters. Obviously, we'll talk about collective bargaining and where we stand.
"But I think there's been a tremendous effort made, a lot of effort made to keep the owners informed, to make sure they understand, to take their views into account, so I don't see this as a watershed meeting or anything like that."
Joining Pash and Goodell for this week's work with Boylan were team owners and labor committee members John Mara of the Giants, Mike Brown of the Bengals, Jerry Richardson of the Panthers and Art Rooney II of the Steelers. Nine of 10 members of the labor committee (excluding only San Diego Chargers owner Dean Spanos) have taken part in the mediation, with Richardson being the constant presence, and Rooney having appeared twice.
"Guys say that they're used to the OTAs, getting together, working out, hitting the field, even playing golf, that's part of building a team, and it's important," Vrabel said. "But I think as a player you come into this league with a certain standard, and I think you try to leave this league better off than when you came.
"I think that's what a lot of guys have done, and I think the beauty of our league is veterans always taking care of rookies, always looking after guys whether they're trying to take their spot or not."
The June 3 hearing isn't the only potential leverage point to be determined between now and the resumption of mediation.
Last Thursday, Judge David Doty heard arguments on what do with $4.078 billion in television revenue. The players asked for an expedited ruling on their request for an injunction in that case, which would put the money in escrow while Doty decides how to divvy it up and assess damages.
But despite all that, Pash remained defiant to the idea that the courts would push along the process.
"What goes on in the courtroom, I know everyone's focused on it, I know it has significance, but it is not going to lead to a solution," said Pash. "We owe it to our game, we owe it to our fans, we owe it to each other, the players and the clubs, to sit down and negotiate. And that's what the next set of discussions has to be focused on."