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'Some progress' in labor talks on day NFL schedule released

MINNEAPOLIS -- The NFL and players met for seven hours Tuesday, their third day of court-ordered mediation before U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan.

According to sources, it was a tough day of talks, with the sides largely spending time separately, but "some progress" was made.

Hanging over this week's talks is the prospect of a ruling from U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson, who ordered this mediation, on the players' request for an injunction to lift the NFL lockout, which the league imposed March 12 after the NFL Players Association decertified as a union.

Nelson emphasized at an April 6 hearing that she will rule "in due course" on the players' motion and wouldn't be stayed by the ongoing mediation. When the sides resume mediation Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. CT in Boylan's chambers, it will have been two weeks since she said she expected to rule in "a couple weeks."

The NFL schedule was released shortly after Tuesday's session, and Commissioner Roger Goodell struck an optimistic tone while speaking to NFL Network, saying the season would be played as intended.

"Clearly, we have some uncertainty with respect to the labor situation, but this is a great day for the fans," Goodell said. "We're doing all we can to prepare for the 2011 season. We're announcing the schedule as usual, around this time of year, because we know that is an important point where fans start looking forward to the season, and I think there's every reason for them to do that. We have every intention of playing a full schedule, and that's why we're releasing it as we normally do."

When asked if he was confident Week 1 would go off as planned, Goodell responded: "We've set the schedule up to play the full 16-game schedule, and that's certainly our intention, that's how we put the schedule together, and we certainly are working towards that."

Goodell was joined by general counsel Jeff Pash, outside counsel Bob Batterman, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy, Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay. Bowlen and Richardson co-chair the NFL's 10-man labor committee, and Jones and Murphy serve on it, as do New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt and Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II, who attended last week's mediation.

The Brady class counsel in the Brady & Eller et al v. National Football League et al case was led by NFLPA outside counsel Jim Quinn and local counsel Barbara Berens, as well as Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel and Minnesota Vikings linebacker Ben Leber. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith didn't participate in Tuesday's proceedings while dealing with a family medical emergency in the Washington, D.C., area, and NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler was in Japan handling a prior commitment with another client.

The Eller class counsel also was represented Tuesday, and the group's lead attorney, Michael Hausfeld, took exception with the idea that the sides involved in Minneapolis aren't taking this round of mediation seriously and rather are waiting for court rulings to determine the battlefield. Hausfeld produced, as evidence of the work, a 100-page paper that the Eller class prepared in response to the questions that Boylan asked the sides to answer over the weekend.

"Over the weekend, we consulted with numerous individuals to prepare a response," said Hausfeld, who added that his team worked well into the last few nights to have it ready. "It has been given to the court to assist the court in making that evaluation and in having the parties understand the differences in position so that they could engage in a meaningful dialogue to reach these serious issues.

"This is no charade, this is no illusion. This is going to come to a resolution, either by the parties compromising and agreeing or by a judgment. And even with a judgment many times, there is then a discussion on how to compromise the judgment so there's not a winner-take-all situation. This takes time, and the court is doing everything within its power to get the parties to realize that."

Hausfeld did recognize truth in the perception that Nelson's ruling likely is just one step forward in what could be a very lengthy process.

"There's no question that any ruling that Judge Nelson makes would be a first step," Hausfeld said. "It will be taken on appeal. There will be a request probably, if it's in favor of an injunction, to stay the ruling. And if she grants the injunction, it goes up to the 8th (U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals). The 8th Circuit has to decide whether to stay the ruling, if she doesn't stay the ruling, and then you have to wait for the 8th Circuit to make a decision.

"Most likely, there'll be a request by parties for an expedited hearing before the 8th Circuit, it's up to the 8th Circuit to grant that. In the interim, between Judge Nelson's decision and the 8th Circuit's decision, there's still more room to mediate and compromise and reach a resolution."

Hausfeld did say he sensed seriousness within the owners' group last week: "I think the owners fully appreciate the significance of the structural changes that would need to be made."

Hausfeld called for the sides to remember people beyond those in the mediation room who will be impacted by what happens in this case in the coming weeks and months.

"I hope everyone in the room -- owners, active players, the rookie representatives and the retiree representatives -- understand that this is a situation that not only involves their interests, but also the interests of many fans and other people who depend upon the game being played," Hausfeld said. "And if everyone seriously approaches the issues in the manner in which the court has, then hopefully progress can be made."

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