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NFL lockout: NFL, players pushing for deal in coming weeks

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The NFL and its locked-out players are making a negotiating push that appears to be aimed at trying to complete a deal on a new labor agreement by early July.

Neither side has commented on the specifics of the talks publicly, but people on both sides of the dispute said this week that a concerted attempt is underway to reach a compromise in coming weeks that would ensure an uninterrupted training camp, preseason and regular season.

The tone of the negotiations is greatly improved, both sides said, and while the talks still could break down, there is guarded optimism that a deal can be reached in late June or early July, according to people who are not involved in the talks but have knowledge of them. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the deliberations.

Negotiators for the two sides met this week in New York after several days of talks last week in Chicago. On Wednesday, the NFL and NFL Players Association issued a joint statement that “they continue to be engaged in confidential discussions” with their mediator, Chief Magistrate Judge Arthur J. Boylan of the federal court in Minnesota, and that “discussions are expected to continue.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a conference call Wednesday with Tampa Bay Buccaneers season ticket holders that “both sides are working hard to reach an agreement” and that the ongoing talks are “a positive step for everybody.”

Goodell, according to an NFL spokesman, repeated that the league intends to play a full 2011 season. “I believe both sides want to find solutions,” he said. “I’m hopeful we’re going to be successful.”

Goodell was joined by five owners — the New York Giants’ John Mara, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Clark Hunt, the New England Patriots’ Robert Kraft, the Carolina Panthers’ Jerry Richardson and the San Diego Chargers’ Dean Spanos — at this week’s talks. Players Kevin Mawae, Jeff Saturday, Mike Vrabel, Tony Richardson and Domonique Foxworth joined DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the dissolved players’ union.

“At the end of the day, there is too much at stake to miss a season,” said sports law expert Gary Roberts, dean of the law school at Indiana University. “There is enough revenue. . . . The parties can work out a deal that can make both sides, while not gleeful, at least satisfied. That’s why I’m confident a deal will get done at some point.”

The players have been locked out by NFL owners since March 12 in a standoff that centers primarily on how to divide the more than $9 billion in annual revenue generated by pro football. One person who did not participate in the talks but has knowledge of them said the willingness to complete a deal has increased and, because of that, the negotiating differences between the two sides can be overcome. Others said the timing is right and the proper people now are involved in the discussions.

One person said the benefits of recently excluding lawyers from the talks may be overstated. But others said that development has helped reduce the level of acrimony.

Also, they said, the courtroom phase of the dispute has largely played itself out, with the NFL achieving some victories in a federal appellate court, which has indicated that the league is likely to prevail in its bid to keep the lockout in place.

Mainly, people in the sport said, both sides are realizing that time is running short, with many players unsigned for the upcoming season and the normal opening of training camps less than two months away.

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said last month that a deal would have to be reached by about July 4 to allow time for a free agent signing period before a full training camp, preseason and regular season. Teams have been prohibited from signing free agents and trading players during the lockout. Most teams normally open training camps by early August.

A later deal could mean an abbreviated free agency period and a truncated training camp and preseason, with the regular season starting on time. But others view early July as a deadline of sorts, believing that if there isn’t a deal by then, it could indicate differences so great that the start of the regular season is in peril.

Roberts said he doesn’t share that opinion. He said a deal is most likely in August, after a ruling by the appeals court on the legality of the lockout. But he said that “both sides could hedge their bets” by completing a deal sooner, before the appellate court moves the negotiating leverage one way or the other.

“It’s all driven on both sides by the internal politics,” Roberts said Wednesday. “Both sides [initially] staked out rather rigid positions. As we get closer and closer to missing football games, I think the voices of reason will win out over the extremist voices and there will be a deal done.”

Strong sentiment remains that if the NFL and players can settle the central financial issue, the other elements of a deal would fall into place.

Before talks collapsed on March 11, the two sides were trying to agree on an annual salary cap figure for the NFL’s 32 teams. The two sides were about $10 million apart on that issue, or about $320 million league-wide for the first year of a collective bargaining agreement.

But to resolve the core economic issue, the league and players also would have to agree to a split of any future revenue that exceeds projections, a highly divisive issue during the March talks. In addition, any deal would have to address the NFL’s desire to avoid ongoing court oversight of the sport’s labor situation and the league’s proposal to blood test players for human growth hormone. The two sides also would have to find a mutually agreeable rookie pay system.

The talks have buoyed hopes for a deal. Agent Drew Rosenhaus wrote last week on Twitter: “It is nice to see the optimism back regarding a new CBA! Great [to] see both sides negotiating again — things are heading in the right direction.”

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