NFL seeks direction entering crucial day of labor mediation

New York Giants owner John Mara left mediator George Cohen's Washington D.C. office Wednesday night, followed by two NFL officials, two lawyers and questions from reporters.

"Long day," Mara said as he departed the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service at 9:30 p.m. ET.

Mara, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy, league general counsel Jeff Pash and outside labor counsel Bob Batterman met with Cohen for 1½ hours, capping a 12-hour day of bargaining sessions and meetings that again failed to produce a new collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association.

The sides will try mediation again at 9 a.m. ET Thursday -- just 15 hours before the current CBA expires and the possibility of a lockout increases.

Among the other possibilities are that the union will decertify sometime before the deadline, meaning the players would give up their rights under labor law and instead take their chances in court under antitrust law. Also, the deadline could be extended -- something Pash reiterated Wednesday as a possibility.

Depending on which of those occurs, the country's most popular sports league might wind up losing regular-season games to a work stoppage for the first time since 1987. That probably seems unthinkable to football fans who buy tickets and propel television ratings, helping the NFL become an industry with annual revenues topping $9 billion.

Pash said the purpose of the Wednesday night meeting with Cohen was to "get some direction," not long after NFL owners held a three-hour special labor meeting in a Chantilly, Va., hotel. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said the owners didn't take a vote about whether or not to lock out players after the current CBA expires.

Irsay added that the discussion in the meeting was "thorough," and he believed the ongoing dialogue between the NFL and NFLPA was a positive. When asked if he was frustrated that the situation could be headed to the courtroom via suits and countersuits, Irsay replied, "Business and frustration, they just go hand-in-hand."

Most owners -- including some, such as the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones and New England Patriots' Robert Kraft, who were at Wednesday's mediation -- said after the meeting that they were leaving town, and Thursday's planned get-together was canceled.

Earlier Wednesday, the sides held a four-hour mediation session that was attended by all 10 members of the owners' labor committee, union president Kevin Mawae and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Those parties hadn't been involved in the eight previous sessions held since Feb. 18.

The labor committee is comprised of owners Mara, Jones, Kraft, Jerry Richardson (Carolina Panthers), Pat Bowlen (Denver Broncos), Art Rooney II (Pittsburgh Steelers), Clark Hunt (Kansas City Chiefs), Dean Spanos (San Diego Chargers) and Mike Brown (Cincinnati Bengals), as well as Murphy.

"We decided it would be a good idea for our full committee to meet with this mediation process," Richardson said. "Our objective, of course, is to negotiate a fair agreement for players and teams. So far, we obviously haven't had success. We're optimistic in due time we will."

Said Mawae: "We're talking. That's better than not talking."

In an exclusive interview with NFL Network's Albert Breer, Brees was asked why he believed it was important for a player of his stature to be involved in the talks.

"Because I feel like I can make a difference," he said. "I feel like I represent all 1,900 players in this league, just as all the players who are involved do.

"I know how many have sacrificed on my behalf in the past. I'm just trying to do the same for them."

Mawae and Brees were part of a large group of players who accompanied NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith on Wednesday. That included Minnesota Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, Denver Broncos safety Brian Dawkins, New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth.

After the session, the NFL contingent hopped into a fleet of six black sport-utility vehicles and headed to Chantilly to begin filling in other owners on the status of the negotiations.

Because Cohen told both sides to stay silent publicly about the current talks, no one has revealed any specifics about what progress might have been made.

The biggest sticking point all along has been how to divide the league's revenues, including what cut team owners should receive up front to help cover certain costs, such as stadium construction. Under the old deal, owners received about $1 billion off the top. They entered these negotiations seeking to add another $1 billion to that.

Among the other significant topics: a rookie wage scale, the owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games, and benefits for retired players.

Cohen said last week that the sides were far apart on the core issues. And by the end of Thursday, more will be known about exactly how far apart.

"We're less than two days away from the deadline, so obviously this is crunch time," Brees said. "We, as players, want to get a deal done. There is definitely a sense of urgency on our side."

NFL Network's Albert Breer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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