Negotiations to prevent an NFL lockout took a grim turn Thursday with the cancellation of the second day of a planned two-day bargaining session.
"We wish we were negotiating today," NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah said. "That's all I can say."
There are just three weeks to go before the collective bargaining agreement expires on March 3.
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The collapse of the talks came as a surprise. The two sides got together Wednesday for the second time in five days, the previous negotiations taking place in Dallas on Saturday before the Super Bowl. Neither Atallah nor NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith would comment on why Thursday's session was called off.
The NFL issued a statement Thursday in reponse to media reports that the league was responsible for the breakdown in talks:
"Despite the inaccurate characterizations of yesterday's meeting, out of respect to the collective bargaining process and our negotiating partner, we are going to continue to conduct negotiations with the union in private and not engage in a point-counterpoint on the specifics of either side's proposals or the meeting process. Instead, we will work as hard as possible to reach a fair agreement by March 4. We are fully focused on that goal."
The league also confirmed that Commissioner Roger Goodell has canceled an owners' meeting scheduled for next Tuesday in Philadelphia.
One of the issues the NFL and NFLPA continue to be at odds over is the structure of a rookie salary cap. NFL Network insider Jason LaCanfora reports that agents representing NFL players were e-mailed a memo from the union Thursday afternoon detailing the NFL's most recent response to their rookie-wage scale proposal, and Smith's response to it.
The NFL formally responded to the NFLPA's proposal in late January, and Smith released a letter to agents today updating them on the status of the rookie scale.
This memo, copies of which were obtained by NFL.com/NFL Network, provide the union's detailed synopsis on what it states was the league's counteroffer, including proposals for minimum salaries and contract lengths. According to the memo, the league's proposal has called for slotting of picks in essence (a process of a set salary and bonus parameter based on the draft slot in which a player was selected, allowing for minimal, if any, individual negotiation).
That is a premise the NFLPA is vehemently opposed to, and one that several union officials and agents have told LaCanfora privately they would not agree to.
Smith argues in the memo that by holding down rookie salaries, the NFL would also be limiting the future salaries of veterans. Union officials have also objected to the league's proposal that no rookie-contract re-negotiations be possible until after the third year of a contract, and that rookie signing bonuses be paid over the life of the contract rather than upfront.
The NFL's proposal, according to the memo, calls for first-round picks to be under contract for five years, and other draft picks for four years. The union has proposed four-year deals for picks in rounds one through three, and three-year deals for rounds four through seven. The sides also were not in agreement on minimum base salaries for rookies, with the league's proposal roughly $120,000 less per year, according to the memo.
Owners opted out of the current CBA in 2008 and are seeking a bigger cut of the league's annual revenues, which are roughly $9 billion, as well as the rookie wage scale. They also want to increase the regular season by two games to 18, while dropping two preseason games.
The players are happy with the status quo.
The NFL has had labor peace since a 1987 players' strike that led to three games with replacement players, but some sort of labor stoppage appears a genuine possibility this year because of the slow pace of negotiations. The talks at the Super Bowl were the first formal discussions since November.
Meanwhile, the NFLPA continued to present its side of the argument to the public. The union brought in a beer vendor from Ford Field in Detroit as part of a news conference in the nation's capital aimed at demonstrating the effects a lockout would have on the economy.
"Football and other major sporting events are some of the only things that bring people to downtown Detroit after 5 p.m.," said John Marler, who has worked at the stadium since 2007.
Kimberly Freeman Brown, executive director of American Rights at Work, said the NFL and union are fussing over many of the same issues faced by many workers: pay cuts, longer working hours, workplace safety and health care. She said a lockout would have an impact on 150,000 jobs and cause more than $160 million in lost revenue in every city with an NFL team. She called a potential work stoppage "something that could potentially have devastating consequences on our quality of life and our mental health."
"For many fans, football is just that deep to us," Brown said.
Atallah defended the union's public relations tactics.
"It is important for us to stand with the people who are here on this panel, not for any publicity issue or publicity stunt," Atallah said. "This is real life for us. This is a reality that these people face."
Smith arrived during the news conference, but stayed in the back of the room and did not answer questions.
For more NFL labor news, go to http://www.NFLLabor.com.
The Associated Press contributed to this report