Round 2 of NFL-player mediation begins with 'fence-mending'

MINNEAPOLIS -- The NFL and the players held their first negotiation in 34 days. And it took a while.

The sides staged nearly 10 hours of settlement talks before U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan on Thursday, going into the early evening and working through, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, "tough" negotiations and some necessary "fence-mending." The sides will return to Boylan's chambers for another round of talks Friday at 9:30 a.m. CT.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell declined comment upon his departure, saying that "we pledged confidentiality," but others spoke in generalities about the day's events.

"The magistrate judge is working very hard, and I give him a lot of credit for trying to move the parties towards a solution," said NFL general counsel Jeff Pash, the league's lead negotiator. "And we're going to be back here tomorrow morning to continue our work with him."

Judge Susan Nelson ordered this mediation after hearing the players' motion for an injunction to lift the NFL lockout. Nelson also implored the sides to have people with decision-making power in the room for these talks, and each side complied to a degree.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II and Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay joined Goodell and Pash in the league contingent.

NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith headed the team to represent the plaintiffs in the Brady et al v. the National Football League et al case, filed by MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, among others. Smith was joined by NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler and current players Mike Vrabel and Ben Leber.

Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller and lead attorney Michael Hausfeld led the plaintiffs group in the Eller et al v. the National Football League et al case, which has been consolidated with the Brady case.

Thursday represented the 33rd day of the NFL lockout, which the league imposed after negotiations at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service broke off and the NFLPA decertified itself as a union. The sides had 16 days of talks at FMCS before the collective bargaining agreement expired.

There isn't a timeframe to this set of talks, but Hausfeld said after Thursday's session that the judge indicated they would go "as long as it makes sense." Nelson said in her order for this mediation Monday that she would rule on the lockout injunction "in due course" and these talks wouldn't serve as a de facto stay on that ruling.

Eller did emphasize that the concern of fans was on his mind entering negotiations.

"We would like to ease their minds," the former Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks lineman said. "We are very interested in having a football season. A lot of our things depend on it, of course. But I'm with the fans. We want them to be happy. That's what's important to us."

As for the consolidation of the players' cases, Eller said, on behalf of the retirees, "It is significant in that we get to be here and have the opportunity to be here and say our own piece."

The sides met separately with Boylan in preparation for Thursday's session, with the league coming to his chambers Tuesday and the players following suit Wednesday. The meetings were intended to educate Boylan on each sides' arguments as he readied to preside over the mediation.

While Boylan will have an open line of communication with Nelson, he will not be required to report to her. Nelson has offered both sides protection, in that the mediation cannot be used against either party in any other case.

Goodell stepped away from Thursday's session to join a teleconference with 5,300 Cleveland Browns season-ticket holders for 20 minutes. He wouldn't characterize the negotiations, which are supposed to remain confidential, but did reiterate the importance of the sides coming together.

"I can tell you that it's a positive step when the parties are talking," he said. "We saw the March 11 proposal as responsive to issues raised by the players and there are many attractive elements in it. ... Our entire focus is on getting a deal done."

Goodell said the league hopes to release its schedule for next season within the next 10 days and plans to play "a full season." Goodell also said there are no plans to use replacement players as the league did in 1987 and that the Super Bowl in Indianapolis could be pushed back one week or the two-week gap after the conference championships could be shortened to one if necessary.

But Goodell's main message to fans was to assure them they would see the Browns play next season.

"We're going to make sure we have football, and more of it," he said.

Goodell held a similar session Wednesday with Miami Dolphins season-ticket holders. During that call, he stressed the league's goal of keeping player costs under control and, in response to a question about financial transparency, said the NFL's disclosure has been "extraordinary." He insisted the players know "the revenue down to the penny," a reference to the union's push for the league to open the books.

"We want them to be informed," Goodell said. "We want to make sure they understand why we have the issues that we need to address."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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