NFL lockout: Full preseason is in growing jeopardy


NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, above, will take part in Thursday’s negotiations along with players’ union executive director DeMaurice Smith. (Alex Brandon/AP)
July 6, 2011

Full negotiating teams for the NFL and locked-out players are scheduled to reconvene Thursday in New York amid indications that team owners might consider canceling the start of the preseason if a handshake deal is not reached by early next week.

The opening preseason game is scheduled for Aug. 7.

Attorneys and staff members for both sides met for a second straight day Wednesday as a precursor to Thursday’s full meeting. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, are scheduled to rejoin the negotiations along with groups of owners and players.

The lawyers have been crafting language for a formal agreement, hoping to have parts of it ready to go if negotiators can settle the remaining issues. It appears that progress has slowed this week without Goodell and Smith directly involved in the talks.

Tentative plans call for this round of talks to extend into the weekend if progress is made Thursday and Friday. A handshake deal is unlikely by Friday but could come by the end of the weekend or early next week if talks last that long, said several people who are not involved in the negotiations but are familiar with them. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the deliberations are at a sensitive stage.

A handshake deal by early next week would ensure that a full preseason would be played and probably guarantee that teams could report to training camps as scheduled beginning July 23.

The league has no firm deadline to cancel preseason games and has not communicated any negotiating deadlines for a full preseason to the players’ side, people familiar with the talks said. But they said it would take 10 to 12 days to turn an agreement in principle into a formal written pact, and owners might give serious consideration to canceling the preseason opener if they don’t have a formal agreement completed by their July 21 meeting.

The Chicago Bears are scheduled to play the St. Louis Rams in Canton, Ohio, in the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 7. The opening preseason games for other teams are scheduled for Aug. 11-15. Officials have estimated that pro football generates about $200 million per week during the preseason.

Players do not receive paychecks during the preseason. But the revenue generated goes into the pool on which the salary cap — and thus, players’ pay — is based.

Some people on the players’ side of the dispute seem convinced that the NFL could play a full preseason even if a deal is reached later than early next week.

The timing of free agency could become increasingly problematic as the talks drag on. Officials have said the league doesn’t intend to allow hundreds of free agents to sign contracts until there is a ratified collective bargaining agreement. Time for a free agent signing period is running short if teams are to open training camps as scheduled.

The full negotiating teams will meet face to face for the first time since a round of talks ended last week in Minneapolis. A marathon negotiating session Thursday lasted into early Friday morning, when the two sides repaired a rift after the talks had appeared on the verge of collapsing earlier that day.

People in the sport have cautioned since then that the talks still could unravel. Some say that a deal would become extremely difficult to reach if any preseason games are canceled and the revenue lost.

But significant progress apparently has been made over the central financial issue of how the two sides will divide pro football’s approximately $9.3 billion in annual revenue. There have been indications recently that the players will receive just less than half the total under a simplified salary cap system.

That system might require each team to spend at least 90 percent of a specific annual figure. Previous proposals have included expense credits for owners and targeted year-by-year salary cap figures. It’s not clear if those elements would be part of any resolution.

There also has been recent tension over a rookie pay system and retiree benefits. But it seems likely that most other solutions will fall into place if key money issues are resolved.

The league previously has backed off its demand for immediate implementation of an 18-game season and offered the players reductions in offseason workouts. The NFL wants to blood-test players for human growth hormone and avoid future court oversight of the sport’s labor situation.

Any deal would have to be approved by the federal court in St. Paul, Minn., where the players filed an antitrust lawsuit against the owners, if the deal is a settlement of the lawsuit. Or the two sides could agree to a labor deal and the players could independently withdraw their lawsuit.

Unrestricted free agency probably will again be available to a player after four seasons, as part of the deal. That threshold was raised to six seasons last year in a season played without a salary cap.

Chief Magistrate Judge Arthur J. Boylan, who has been mediating the talks, is scheduled to leave Saturday for a vacation, ESPN reported. But talks would continue without him if necessary.

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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