WASHINGTON -- NFL players and owners have seen their face-to-face labor negotiations closely chronicled over the past eight weeks.
On Saturday, they proved they could make progress in a different forum.
Tentative 2011 league calendar*
Using personal phone calls, email communication and conference calls, the parties regained some momentum that was lost Thursday and continued driving toward a resolution that could save the four full weeks of preseason games, with the Hall of Fame Game already canceled. They addressed topics such as workers' compensation, injury protection in contracts, a potential opt-out clause in the deal and, most pointedly, the potential timeline for the reforming of the NFL Players Association as a union.
Sources on each side said Saturday night that some issues remain unresolved. But the NFLPA made arrangements Saturday night for its 13-man executive committee to meet Monday at the trade association's Washington headquarters. Player representatives are on standby for the meeting. In addition, the NFL's labor committee, which has negotiated with the NFLPA's executive committee throughout, held a Saturday afternoon conference call to discuss the remaining issues.
According to NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora, an NFLPA source believes that if progress continues, the players could vote on an agreement Tuesday. Owners would have to sign off on the new collective bargaining agreement language, too.
Sources involved in the negotiations also told La Canfora that they believe it's possible the league year will start by Wednesday and training camps could open by Friday. Depending on the timing of a full agreement being reached and a judge signing off on a global settlement, it's also possible that free agency and training camp could open simultaneously, sources said.
Two votes, neither of which amounted to a deal, have taken place in the last four days. On Wednesday, the NFLPA empowered its executive committee, lawyers and executive director, DeMaurice Smith, to work out a deal, so long as certain conditions were met. On Thursday, the NFL passed a comprehensive proposal 31-0, but that rankled scores of players who believed the league had framed it as a deal to put pressure on the other side.
It seems as if cooler heads have prevailed. Smith and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell have been in constant contact since the players and owners last met face to face, on July 15 in New York, and spoke just before the owners took that vote Thursday.
And even before talks Saturday, another problem was evaporating.
Earlier in the day, it was learned that the league no longer needed to worry about placating the named plaintiffs in the Brady antitrust lawsuit. Requests for concessions for numerous players -- including but not limited to San Diego Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson and New England Patriots guard Logan Mankins -- loomed earlier in the week. But Jackson and Mankins dropped their demands for $10 million to settle the suit against the league, leaving fewer obstacles to a new CBA that would end the four-month-old NFL lockout.
The form in which post-recertification issues would be attacked was discussed Saturday. From a legal standpoint, topics such as benefits (including drug testing) and player discipline cannot be negotiated until after the NFLPA re-forms as a union. The idea, for now, is that the parties will pick up talks on those subjects where they left off in March, when the NFLPA was still a union and negotiations were held at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Washington.
And that topic -- the actual reformation of the union -- has been a hot one over the past few days. The players have concerns over how a hastened recertification process would affect their ability to act legally in any future labor disputes, particularly if the league did choose to assert that a future decertification was a "sham," as it did earlier this year.
The major economic framework for a 10-year deal was worked out a week ago. That included how the $9 billion-plus in annual league revenues will be divided (about 53 percent to owners and 47 percent to players over the next decade; the old CBA resulted in nearly a 50-50 split); a per-club cap of about $120 million for salary and bonuses in 2011 -- and at least that in 2012 and 2013 -- plus about $22 million in benefits; a salary system to rein in spending on first-round draft picks; and unrestricted free agency for most players after four seasons.
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Goodell and league owners expressed hope Thursday night that their 31-0 vote -- the Oakland Raiders abstained -- to approve the proposed CBA would lead to a speedy resolution to the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987. They called it an equitable deal that improves player safety and allows the sport to prosper even more.
"It is time to get back to football," Goodell said.
But even when players decide they're OK with a final agreement, their approval process is more complicated than the owners' was. The 32 player reps will have to recommend accepting the settlement. Then the 10 named plaintiffs -- including Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees -- in the antitrust suit must officially inform the court of their approval.
Eventually, all 1,900 players would take a majority vote to approve returning the NFLPA to union status. When talks broke down in March, allowing the old CBA to expire, the players dissolved the union, turning the NFLPA into a trade association. That's what allowed the players to sue the owners in federal court under antitrust law.
NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora and The Associated Press contributed to this report.