From talks in front of a mediator to arguments before an appeals court, the NFL’s labor dispute has reached a critical stage.
The league and its players completed three straight days of not-so-secret talks Thursday. Now they head to court in St. Louis for a ruling that could prove pivotal in the nearly three-month lockout.
And while three judges from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals consider whether to allow the lockout to continue, further talks between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, several owners, NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith and some of his players might be held elsewhere.
Training camps, meanwhile, normally would open in about seven weeks. This, of course, is no normal year for pro football.
Ben Leber, one of 10 plaintiffs on the still-pending antitrust lawsuit against the league, said the players haven’t discussed a specific drop-dead date for reaching an agreement to ensure the on-time start of training camps. But he said it’s necessary to have one in order to reach a deal.
“Both sides have a day, whether they want to make it public or not,” Leber said. “The biggest challenge is going to lie with whose day is going to come up first. Once it got to this point, I think it was just a good guess based on most corporate labor disputes that nothing was going to get done until the 11th hour. Now it depends on which 11th hour gets here first.”
Goodell and owners Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft and John Mara were among those joined in a Chicago suburb by Smith and a group of players, including NFLPA president Kevin Mawae, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan. Both sides issued statements saying they would honor a court-ordered confidentiality agreement. Boylan then canceled mediation sessions scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in Minneapolis.
A person with knowledge of the talks told The Associated Press that the term “settlement negotiations” doesn’t necessarily mean an agreement is near. The person, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the judge’s confidentiality order, said the cancellation of next week’s sessions was simply a way to keep the process as private as possible.
More likely than any continued mediation with Boylan would be similar secret meetings between the league and players, who have been locked out by owners since March 12.
In the past, the clandestine approach has been a step toward successful negotiations between the league and NFLPA. Such meetings between former union executive director Gene Upshaw and former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue often led to progress on a new collective bargaining agreement.
The NFL was granted a delay in the execution of an injunction against the lockout in late April. Goodell, Smith and several owners are expected to be in court Friday.
The hearing might not be followed by a decision for weeks, although one sports labor expert believes it will be expedited. With the scheduled start to the regular season barely three months away, urgency is becoming the name of the game.
“They know that they have to move fast. We all know that training camps open in mid-July,” said Jay Krupin of the Washington-based firm EpsteinBeckerGreen. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of their clerks are already starting writing their opinion.”
New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper said he hasn’t heard of specific drop-dead dates being discussed, but he believes by start of August, “something has to be etched in stone,” as far a new agreement.
“It looks bleak right now, but I’m thinking that something has to get worked out because too many people will be affected negatively if it does not get worked out,” Sharper said.
At least the two sides were meeting for the last three days. Jones said it simply was good to be talking again, although not all the 32 team owners were made aware of the meetings before they began.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said last week he believed some decisions on opening training camps in late July needed to be made by July 4.
AP sports writers Dave Campbell in Minneapolis, Brett Martel in New Orleans, and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this story.