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NFL talks collapse, shutdown of pro football expected

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The NFL’s labor talks collapsed Friday, leaving the league, players and fans bracing for the first shutdown of professional football in 24 years and a confrontation that could play out in court for months to come.

The players filed to dissolve their union, according to officials on both sides of the dispute, a move that ended negotiations with the NFL and team owners over a new labor pact whose central issue is how to divide the $9 billion in annual revenue generated by the nation’s most popular sport. The two sides met Friday for a 16th day of mediated talks but made no substantial progress.

Decertifying the NFL Players Association enabled the players to file antitrust litigation against the owners, which they did late Friday, according to their attorneys. Lawyers for the players also announced that they are seeking an injunction from U.S. District Judge David S. Doty in Minneapolis to block an expected lockout of players by the owners. Doty has overseen the NFL’s labor pact since 1993. It is not clear when Doty will act on that request, but union attorneys said it probably would be in three or four weeks.

The owners are likely to announce later Friday that they will lock out players, effective after the sport’s current labor deal expires at 11:59 p.m. But they may not have to move immediately.

The union’s executive director, DeMaurice Smith, said as he left the talks about 4:40 p.m. that the union had given owners until 5 p.m. to turn over 10 years worth of audited financial records. The owners apparently did not comply.

Smith said that “significant differences” remained between the two sides.

The players union announced in a news release that “it has informed the NFL, NFL clubs and other necessary parties that it has renounced its status as the exclusive collective bargaining representative of the players of the National Football League.

“The NFLPA will move forward as a professional trade association with the mission of supporting the interests and rights of current and former professional football players.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a brief statement that the union had “walked away” from the mediated talks, which he described as the “fairest and fastest” way of resolving the dispute.

“They’ve chosen to pursue another strategy, and that is their choice,” Goodell said. He predicted, however, that the issues eventually would be resolved at the bargaining table.

John Mara, co-owner of the New York Giants, was harsher in tone. He criticized the NFLPA for refusing to alter its position on key issues. “Their position basically has been ‘take it or leave it,’” Mara said.

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson urged fans “not to be discouraged” and predicted that “in due time we will have an agreement,” a deal he said would be reached at the bargaining table.

In a statement, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said that “the union left a very good deal on the table.”

He said it included:

--An offer to split the difference, thought to be $700 million or less, that separated to the two sides on the division of of NFL revenue.

--Guaranteed reallocation of savings from first-round rookies to veterans and retirees without reducing compensation for players selected in rounds 2-7.

--No reduction in pay for veterans.

--New year-round health and safety rules.

--Retaining the current 16--game regular season, with four preseason games, for at least two years, with future changes subject to the approval of the league and union.

--A new fund for retired players, with $82 million contributed by owners over the next two years.

“The union was offered financial disclosure of audited league and club profitability information that is not even shared with the NFL clubs,” he added in the statement.

In a brief statement outside his K Street office, where the talks have been held the past four weeks, federal mediator George H. Cohen said “regrettably, the parties have not achieved an overall agreement” and had been unable to resolve their differences on “core issues.”

Cohen said he had concluded that “no constructive purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue mediation.”

Vonnie Holliday, the Redskins’ player representative, said in an interview on ESPN that “we want a fair CBA. That’s it. The owners are saying that they’re losing money and they want 18 percent back. Okay, if you are losing money, then in fact show us that. We are not opposed to restructuring, but they refused to do that.”

Attorneys for the players’ side lined up quarterbacks Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, along with other players, to be the named litigants in antitrust litigation against the owners.

Brees, a member of the union’s ruling executive committee, wrote Friday on Twitter: “The NFL brought this fight to us--they want $1 billion back, we just want financial information to back up that request. They refuse to give that information to us. They think we should just trust them. Would you?”

Brees also wrote: “We have a responsibility to our players--past, present, and future, to advance this league forward, not take [three] steps back. I am very sorry that you as fans have to endure this. Football is more than just a game for all of us. We will keep fighting... always.”

If Doty sides with the players and agrees to prevent the expected lockout, the sport would continue operating while the labor dispute is litigated in court. But any decision by Doty could be appealed.

The league already has challenged the players’ decertification of the union in an unfair labor practice charge to the National Labor Relations Board last month.

The sport’s system of free agency and a salary cap was established as part of a 1993 settlement of antitrust litigation by players after they decertified the union, which later was reinstated.

Sources on the owners’ side have said they could withstand a season-long lockout financially, even after a ruling by Doty last week that could prevent the owners from receiving approximately $4 billion in payments from television networks.

Hopes for a settlement were buoyed when Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, persuaded the two sides to agree to a pair of extensions last week that brought the bargaining deadline to Friday.

But talks stalled this week with the league and union unable to resolve the issue of how much money should go to players. The union wanted the league to provide additional financial data to justify concessions the players were being asked to make, and the two sides could not agree to the terms by which such financial disclosures would be made. Tensions had mounted considerably by Thursday evening.

The NFL also had proposed to lengthen the regular season to 18 games, impose a wage scale for rookies, and blood test players for human growth hormone.

As the league’s negotiating team walked into the mediator’s office Friday morning, the NFL’s lead negotiator, Jeff Pash said: “We’ll do our best.”

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told reporters there could be developments within a few hours.

Nine owners on the 10-member bargaining committee attended Friday’s meeting.The union’s negotiating contingent Friday included roughly two dozen people.

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