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NFL, players ordered to resume talks

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A federal judge on Monday ordered the NFL and its locked out players to resume their negotiations, this time under the supervision of a mediator she appointed from her own court.

The mediation is to begin Thursday in Minneapolis, according to U.S. District Court Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who named federal Chief Magistrate Judge Arthur J. Boylan to serve as mediator. Boylan will meet Tuesday with representatives of the players’ side and Wednesday with representatives of the league before formal mediation with both sides begins, according to an order by Nelson released Monday afternoon.

Nelson’s order said she will continue to consider the players’ request for an injunction to end the lockout and will issue a ruling “in due course.” All communication about the mediation sessions is to remain confidential, she said.

Though the order will bring the two sides back together in a less adversarial setting than a court hearing last week, they cannot be forced into a settlement, according to legal experts.

“Judge Nelson can order them to talk but she can’t order them to agree,” said Gabriel Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University.

But “getting them into a room to talk for the first time in over a month can only be a positive step,” he added. “The hope is that Judge Nelson’s questioning of the parties [during that court hearing] and further conversations with them, have scared them into giving in, if she has made them a little less secure about their chances of winning in court. But beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess as to what might happen.”

Representatives of the NFL and the players declined to comment.

An NFL source said the league was pleased to resume talks despite its suggestion of a different format for the mediation.

Negotiations between the league and players on a new labor contract have been on hold since talks in Washington, supervised by George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, collapsed March 11. The players dissolved their union that day and filed an antitrust lawsuit against the sport’s franchise owners. The owners locked out the players the next day.

At the conclusion of a hearing last Wednesday, Nelson urged the two sides to resume talks but stopped short of ordering them to do so. Nelson also told the two sides that she would need a couple of weeks to rule on the players’ request for an injunction.

In an exchange of letters, the league proposed a resumption of talks overseen by Cohen. The players’ side said it would accept Nelson’s suggestion to participate in mediation overseen by the federal court in Minnesota. Nelson spoke to representatives of both sides in a conference call Friday.

Talks broke off last month with the league and players unable to resolve their differences about how to divide the sport’s approximately $9.3 billion in annual revenue. Negotiations originally had centered on the league’s request that the owners be credited with additional money for expenses annually before the players’ portion of the revenue is calculated.

The two sides also were unable to resolve differences stemming from the players’ request for additional financial information about the teams.

Any ruling by Nelson can be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. If Nelson ends the lockout and the league is unable to get a stay of the injunction while it appeals, the sport would go back into operation, at least temporarily.

Also Monday, the locked-out players formally announced plans for their events in New York connected to this month’s NFL draft. Those events include a dinner for draft-eligible players and their families April 28 at a Times Square hotel that will conclude at 6 p.m., two hours before the draft is scheduled to begin at Radio City Music Hall. The players’ event, as promised, does not conflict with the draft, enabling draftees to attend both events if they choose.

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