NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — With less than 48 hours left until the NFL’s labor deal expires, there are far more questions than answers floating around.
Will the owners lock out the players?
Will the union decertify, meaning the players would give up their rights under labor law and take their chances in court under antitrust law?
Will the 2011 NFL season be jeopardized?
The CBA runs out at midnight Eastern time as Thursday becomes Friday, and whatever happens this week could cause the country’s most popular sport to lose regular-season games to a work stoppage for the first time since 1987. Or, perhaps, everything could be resolved by management and labor in an industry with revenues topping $9 billion annually.
The league and the NFL Players Association are scheduled to resume negotiations overseen by a federal mediator Wednesday in Washington. Also Wednesday, about 25 miles west from there, team owners will begin gathering at a hotel in Chantilly, Va., to get an update on where the bargaining stands — and decide what they should do.
The NFL and union met at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service for six hours Tuesday, although the day’s most significant development might very well have come in Minneapolis, where a judged sided with the union in a ruling about TV contract money.
U.S. District Court judge David Doty overruled a special master’s Feb. 1 decision to reject the NFLPA’s request that $4 billion in 2011 payments from networks to the league be placed in escrow if there is a lockout.
“The record shows that the NFL undertook contract renegotiations to advance its own interests and harm the interests of the players,” Doty wrote in his ruling.
Doty, who has jurisdiction over NFL labor matters, said there will be a hearing to determine what should happen to that money. The date of the hearing wasn’t announced immediately.
The NFL played down the importance of Doty’s decision. The union issued a statement calling it “irrefutable evidence that owners had a premeditated plan to lock out players and fans for more than two years.”
As he left Tuesday’s mediation, Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday called Doty’s ruling a “really good reversal.”
“I’m sure we’ll hear more tonight,” said Saturday, a member of the NFLPA executive committee. “But it sounds very favorable.”
The union accused the NFL of structuring TV contracts agreed to in 2009 and 2010 so owners would be guaranteed money even if there were a work stoppage in 2011 — while not getting the most revenue possible in other seasons, when income would need to be shared with players. The union argued this violated an agreement between the sides that says the NFL must make good-faith efforts to maximize revenue for players. The NFLPA also said any work stoppage clauses in TV deals guaranteed “war chest” income for the NFL, giving it an unfair advantage in labor talks.
Tuesday was the eighth day of bargaining overseen by mediator George Cohen.
The Giants’ John Mara, the first owner to attend the federal mediation; Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, chairman of the league’s competition committee; and Washington Redskins general manager Bruce Allen were among those accompanying NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Tuesday.
“I don’t think you could have a greater sense of urgency,” Jeff Pash, the league’s lead labor negotiator, said on his way into Tuesday’s meeting. “We all know what the calendar is, and we all know what’s at stake for everybody. And that’s why we’re here. We’re going to be here as long as it takes and work as hard as we can work to get something done.”
Afterward, in keeping with Cohen’s order to stay silent on the mediation, neither the NFL nor the union would discuss whether they fared any better Tuesday than they did during more than 40 hours of meetings spread across seven previous days of mediation. When that round ended Thursday, Cohen said the parties still had “very strong differences” on the “all-important core issues.”
Buffalo Bills safety George Wilson — who’s not involved in the negotiations but is getting updates from the union as his team’s NFLPA representative — doesn’t expect a new deal by the deadline.
“Everything I’m telling my guys is: Prepare this Friday for the start of a lockout,” Wilson said. “I certainly don’t believe a deal will be reached by Thursday midnight. That’s what I feel in my heart. I have not received any indication (from the union) that we’re close to a deal.”
The biggest sticking point all along has been how to divide the league’s revenues, including what cut team owners should get up front to help cover certain costs, such as stadium construction. Under the old deal, owners got $1 billion off the top. They entered these negotiations seeking to double that.
Among the other significant topics: a rookie wage scale; the owners’ push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; and benefits for retired players.
“What’s the word we’re using right now? ‘Cautiously optimistic,'” Seattle Seahawks guard Chester Pitts said after attending the first 3½ hours of Tuesday’s negotiations. “We’re making a point to go into it doing all we can to do things the right way, and hopefully we get a deal done.”
Asked about Mara’s presence, Pitts said: “He’s a businessman, and businessmen like to make money. So sometimes you’ve got to come, make sure you’re hovering around, make sure everything’s being done to get a deal done. And I’m pretty sure he’ll say he had that sense.”
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