Eller says retired players won’t block NFL deal

Posted July 19, 2011, at 6:41 p.m.
Last modified July 19, 2011, at 7:24 p.m.

Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller thinks a deal to end the NFL lockout will be reached this week — and says retired players won’t stand in the way of an agreement.

Eller and lawyers for retired NFL players joined labor talks for about seven hours Tuesday in New York as signs mounted the dispute might almost be over. After leaving the negotiations, Eller headed to a meeting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“They want to get these games going, and they want to have a season. That’s their focus,” Eller said. “Our issues are very, very critical — very important — but they don’t really have much to do with whether the game goes on or not.”

He said “there’s still a lot more to be done” when it comes to benefits for former players, but that could be resolved after the main dispute is settled.

The court-appointed mediator, U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, also was at the session, his second consecutive day overseeing negotiations. Owners and players were trying to close a deal to resolve the NFL’s first work stoppage since 1987.

The NFL Players Association’s executive committee met in Washington on Tuesday to prepare for possible votes on an agreement in principle. Representatives of all 32 teams were supposed to arrive by Wednesday.

“The grass is cut, but the hay is not in the barn yet. We’ve got a lot of work to do,” NFLPA president Kevin Mawae said.

Owners, meanwhile, are set to hold a special meeting in Atlanta on Thursday, when they could ratify a new deal. Executives from all 32 teams then would be briefed there Thursday and Friday on how the terms would affect league business. Clubs were told topics would include the 2011 NFL calendar, rookie salary system and guidelines for player transactions.

Goodell and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith planned to stay in regular contact.

Still unresolved is what it will take to get the 10 plaintiffs — including quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson and Patriots guard Logan Mankins — to sign off on a settlement to their antitrust lawsuit against the NFL that is pending in federal court in Minnesota.

On Tuesday, lawyers for the NFL and the players suing the league submitted a joint filing to the court, asking for an extra week to file written arguments “to allow them to focus on the continuing mediation.” Tuesday’s request, which was granted in the afternoon, noted that “the parties have also been meeting regularly since April 11, 2011, in an effort to resolve their disputes.”

Also pending is the TV networks case, in which players accused owners of setting up $4 billion in “lockout insurance.”

Another issue said to be standing in the way of a resolution to the lockout: Players want owners to turn over $320 million in unpaid benefits from the 2010 season. Because there was no salary cap that season, the old collective bargaining agreement said NFL teams weren’t required to pay those benefits.

On a separate matter, a proposal under consideration would set up nearly $1 billion over the next 10 years in additional benefits for retired players. That would include $620 million in pension increases, long-term care insurance and disability programs.

Retired players complained to the court recently that they had been excluded from negotiations, which is why Eller’s presence was significant.

“We weren’t happy, and we hope it doesn’t go back to that. We hope we stay active in the talks and we hope we continue to have meaningful talks. This clearly lets us know there’s more work to be done,” Eller said. “It’s certainly something we want to keep going and continue the dialogue, continue to work until we have some kind of a solution.”

Owners locked out players on March 12, when the old collective bargaining agreement expired, leaving the country’s most popular professional sports league in limbo. The sides are trying to forge a settlement in time to keep the preseason completely intact. The exhibition opener is supposed to be the Hall of Fame game between the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears on Aug. 7.

The regular-season opener is scheduled for Sept. 8, when the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers are to host the New Orleans Saints.

The four-month lockout has resulted in pay cuts for non-playing employees around the league, and economic hardship for cities, like Cortland, N.Y., that hosted training camps in the past but won’t this year. On Tuesday, the lower-level UFL — which had been hoping to start its season in the void created by a lack of NFL preseason games — announced it is delaying its season start to mid-Se ptember, a blow for a league that has lost $100 million in only two years.

During lengthy negotiations last week, NFL owners and players came up with the framework of a CBA that addresses most of their differences.

Areas they’ve figured out include:

— How the more than $9 billion in annual league revenues will be divided, with somewhere from 46.5 to 48.5 percent going to players, depending on how much the total take from TV contracts and other sources rises or falls;

— A structure for rookie contracts that will rein in soaring salaries for high first-round draft picks;

— Free agency rules that allow most four-year veterans to negotiate with any team;

— A cap of about $120 million per team for player salaries in 2011, with about another $20 million per team in benefits.

— Each team must spend at least 90 percent of the salary cap in cash each season, a higher figure than in the past.

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