NFL lockout: Free agency adds urgency to labor talks

One factor contributing to the urgency to finish an NFL labor agreement quickly is both sides’ desire for a free agent signing period long enough for teams to assemble their rosters and players to shop for suitable deals.

Hundreds of NFL players who could be eligible for free agency have been in limbo for nearly 31 / 2 months, leaving teams unable to complete personnel acquisitions for the upcoming season. Free agent signings and trades of players have been prohibited during the lockout, which began March 12. Teams also have been barred from signing the players they drafted in April or undrafted rookies.

The result will be a mad scramble of signings and trades before training camps open. But that period won’t begin until there is a formal, signed collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players, people familiar with the process said.

It could take a couple of weeks to turn a handshake deal between the league and the players into an officially completed agreement.

The deal must be put into writing by attorneys. It must be approved by each side, and the ratification vote by the owners might require an in-person meeting. The players’ approval process is more likely to take place via conference call. And the players may have to reconstitute their dissolved union as part of the new pact.

The deal also may require approval of the federal court in St. Paul, Minn., where the players filed an antitrust lawsuit against the owners March 11, but that’s a little less clear.

It would be required if a deal between the league and players is completed as a settlement of the players’ lawsuit. In that case, the two sides might have to craft language to satisfy the league’s demand that the sport’s labor situation no longer be subject to court oversight.

But the accord instead could be reached as a labor agreement, and the players could separately withdraw their lawsuit.

“There’s a lot to be done,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday after the owners completed a one-day meeting in the Chicago area. “Obviously you’d want to have the agreement fully negotiated and reflected in the documents. Secondly, you’d have to go to the various bodies, the players, and there is some litigation involved with this also, as you know, that would have to get resolved also. Those steps would have to take place and would be done on an expedited basis as possible.”

Talks between the NFL and locked-out players resumed Wednesday in the Boston area. The goal, it appears, is to begin free agency around July 15, giving teams time to add players before training camps open — on time — in late July or early August. But that might require an agreement in principle by about July 1, the end of next week.

People familiar with the talks said an attempt will be made to finish a deal before the July 4 holiday, but because of the complexity of the issues, a pact might not come until the following week, they said. The people were not involved in the negotiations but had knowledge of them and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

Some general managers and team presidents attended the owners’ meeting Tuesday, and officials have said that contingency plans are being drawn up for how free agency would work, depending on when a deal is completed.

If a deal is completed later than early July, people familiar with the process said, the free agent signing period could be compressed to allow training camps to begin as soon as possible. Player signings and trades would be allowed to continue after training camps open.

It appears likely that players with expired contracts will be eligible for unrestricted free agency after four seasons of NFL service, under the terms of the deal now under negotiation. That was the requirement for unrestricted free agency under the sport’s previous system, before it was raised to six seasons last offseason in a year played without a salary cap.

Owners are prepared to intensify negotiations after only modest objections to a prospective deal with the players were voiced during Tuesday’s meeting, according to people familiar with the deliberations. Wednesday’s negotiating meeting came after Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, participated in a series of talks during the past three weeks, along with small groups of owners and players.

Those meetings put a deal within reach. Now comes the attempt to apply the finishing touches. People familiar with the talks have cautioned that the negotiations still could stall or even unravel. But both sides appear committed to completing a deal, even as they await a ruling by a federal appeals court on whether the lockout will be permitted to continue.

A deal likely would give the players slightly less than half the sport’s revenue, under a salary cap system. A proposed 18-game season apparently would be shelved at least temporarily. The number of offseason workouts would be reduced, and a new rookie pay system likely would be implemented. The league also is seeking to have players blood-tested for human growth hormone.

Litigation, including the players’ antitrust lawsuit, a case involving the sport’s television contracts and a collusion claim, likely would be resolved.

 
Read what others are saying