With time running short to keep the NFL's preseason intact, owners and players got into another long round of labor talks Thursday in New York, trying to break the impasse that has kept the league shut down for four months.
Each group turned out in force for the latest negotiations at a Manhattan law firm.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and eight of the 10 members of the owners' labor committee were present, including Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and John Mara of the New York Giants. Two new participants Thursday were Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy and San Diego Chargers president and CEO Dean Spanos.
NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith and a half-dozen current or former players also were there, including Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, Baltimore Ravens defensive back Domonique Foxworth, and Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora is one of 10 player plaintiffs in a federal antitrust lawsuit against the league.
After about six hours, Smith and some of the players' group left the building for about 20 minutes while their lawyers stayed behind.
The NFL locked out players in March, after negotiations broke down and the old collective bargaining agreement expired, and now the preseason is fast approaching. With each passing day, the need to arrive at a deal to end the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 becomes greater.
The Hall of Fame game that opens the exhibition season is scheduled for Aug. 7 between the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears, who hope to be able to start training camp at the end of next week. Yet camps will not open without a new CBA in place.
Talks gained steam in May, overseen by a court-appointed mediator, U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, who is on vacation this week. Boylan ordered both sides to meet with him in Minneapolis early next week, and the owners have a special meeting set for next Thursday in Atlanta, where they potentially could ratify a new deal — if one is reached by then.
Even once an agreement in principle on the core economic issues is drawn up, there will be more work to be done. That's because there are certain issues that won't be addressed in full until after the NFLPA re-establishes itself as a union — a process that might take a couple of days — and can then serve once again as a collective bargaining unit for the players.
Items that could fall under that umbrella include the league's drug-testing program, health insurance, retired players' pensions and other benefits, none of which is likely to be resolved completely while the union is still dissolved.
There's also a chance the players could pursue a lockout injunction for rookies and free agents after an appeals court ruled last week that the work stoppage could continue.
Disruptions to the planned preseason schedule would decrease the overall revenue pie. While the parameters for how to divide the more than $9 billion in annual league revenues have been sketched out, there are other sticking points still under discussion, including a rookie salary system and free agency guidelines.
The owners want longer rookie contracts and have been seeking more right-of-first-refusal tags for unrestricted free agents. The players want to get back to free agency rules similar to 2009, when a four-year veteran whose contract expired was unrestricted. That minimum shifted to six years in 2010, when there was no salary cap because owners already had declared they were opting out of the old CBA.
This week's talks in New York began Monday with two days of meetings involving primarily lawyers. Wednesday's face-to-face session was attended by Goodell, Smith, owners and players went nearly 11 hours.
As Wednesday's meeting was beginning, star quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees — plaintiffs in the players' antitrust suit against the NFL — issued a joint statement saying "it is time" to wrap up negotiations.
"We believe the overall proposal made by the players is fair for both sides and it is time to get this deal done," they said. "This is the time of year we as players turn our attention to the game on the field. We hope the owners feel the same way."
In response, the NFL issued a statement saying: "We share the view that now is the time to reach an agreement so we can all get back to football and a full 2011 season. We are working hard with the players' negotiating team every day to complete an agreement as soon as possible."