MINNEAPOLIS — The NFL and its locked-out players wrapped up their fourth day of court-ordered talks Wednesday with few signs of progress and no plans to meet again until mid-May.
Executive vice president Jeff Pash, the NFL’s lead negotiator, said U.S. Judge Magistrate Arthur Boylan told both sides they probably won’t convene again until May 16 because he has a few other matters on his judicial calendar.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson is expected to decide well before then on the players’ request for an injunction to immediately lift the lockout, now in its 40th day. Her decision will almost certainly be appealed, but it could give the winning side leverage as the clock ticks on the 2011 season.
Also coming up: U.S. District Judge David Doty on May 12 is scheduled to hear the players’ request for damages after he ruled in March that the NFL did not maximize revenues for both sides when it renegotiated $4 billion in TV contracts with the labor dispute looming.
“There’s a lot of uncertainties right now,” Pash said. “I think when we’re back together we’ll know more. People’s legal positions will be clearer.”
Both sides said the sessions with Boylan were positive and productive.
“I think everybody believes it was helpful and that’s really where we are,” said Jim Quinn, an attorney for the players.
Hall of Fame player Carl Eller agreed.
“I do feel very positive about the 2011 season,” Eller said. “I think everybody has come here with the idea to have a 2011 season and it’s just not been easy to get to that point. So I think everybody’s been working hard toward that goal. Seeing them work to that end makes me much more optimistic. I would certainly say we’re going to have a 2011 season.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league is planning to start the season on time despite the lengthy process of navigating the legal system.
“We’re planning to play a full season and we’re going to negotiate as hard as we can to get that done,” Goodell told Giants season-ticket holders in a conference call during a break in mediation session at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis.
Goodell, Packers CEO Mark Murphy, Falcons President Rich McKay and owners Pat Bowlen of Denver, Jerry Jones from Dallas and Jerry Richardson from Carolina attended Wednesday’s session. Players Ben Leber and Mike Vrabel were joined by Eller and attorneys for the players.
Goodell said all parties involved remain committed to ending the NFL’s first work stoppage since 1987.
“I think fans want solutions. I want solutions,” he said. “I think the players want solutions and I think the teams want solutions. That’s why we have to be working at it in negotiations and figuring out how to get to that point.”
Players including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning filed the injunction request along with a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. The lawsuit has been combined with two other similar claims from retirees, former players and rookies-to-be, with Eller the lead plaintiff in that group.
Nelson ordered the two sides into mediation while she considered the request and the two sides met with Boylan following 16 days of failed talks in front of a federal mediator in Washington.
“I think you can’t sort of measure this like a stock table in what’s going up or down on any given day but it’s always a positive to be able to talk to people,” Pash said.
Pash said he felt the talks were particularly productive between the league and retired players, and that the owners remain committed to improving benefits and taking care of their former players.
The league and players disagree sharply on how to divide more than $9 billion in annual revenue.
The owners initially wanted to double the money they get off the top for expenses from about $1 billion to about $2 billion, but that number dropped during the first round of mediation. The players have insisted on full financial disclosure from all 32 teams, and so far the league has not opened the books to their liking.
Other major issues include benefits for retired players and the NFL’s desire to stretch the regular season from 16 to 18 games. The NFL also wants to cut almost 60 percent of guaranteed pay for first-round draft picks, lock them in for five years and divert the savings to veterans’ salaries and benefits.
More than $525 million went to first-rounders in guaranteed payments in 2010. The league wants to decrease that figure by $300 million, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The Sports Business Journal reported Wednesday that a group of about 70 “mid-tier” players was considering hiring a law firm to get a seat at the mediation table, upset that the talks broke off last month.
DeMaurice Smith, the head of the players’ trade association, said he was unaware of the report. Vrabel said he had not heard of the report, either, but “they do have a seat, with Ben and me.”
The NFL released its regular season schedule Tuesday night, announcing that the season will open on Thursday, Sept. 8, with the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers hosting the New Orleans Saints.
That’s less than five months away, with free agency, trades and other roster decisions still up in the air while the lockout is in place.
The announcement of the schedule came with a big if, of course. The longer the labor strife drags through the court system, the more danger is posed to actual games being canceled.
AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan contributed to this report.