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NFL labor talks resume amid slim hopes of a deal

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 12:02 AM

The NFL's labor negotiations resumed Tuesday in Washington with little optimism around the league that a last-minute settlement could be reached to avert open confrontation between owners and players when their collective bargaining agreement expires Friday.

Federal mediator George H. Cohen, attempting to avoid a showdown, brought together NFL and players' union negotiators for another round of talks that began Tuesday afternoon. If he fails, players could be locked out by franchise owners as soon as Friday, and may take steps necessary to sue the owners as early as Thursday.

Meanwhile, the NFL Players Association gained a victory Tuesday when a federal judge ruled in its favor in a complaint over the owners' $4 billion in annual television revenue. The players contend that the money, which would continue flowing to owners during a work stoppage, amounts to a lockout fund.

U.S. District Judge David Doty wrote that he would hold a hearing to consider damages and other remedies. The union has asked that the money be withheld from owners if players are locked out.

Greg Aiello, the NFL's senior vice president of public relations, played down the significance of the decision. He said in a written statement: "As we have frequently said, our clubs are prepared for any contingency, this decision included. Today's ruling will have no effect on our efforts to negotiate a new, balanced labor agreement."

The central issue in the labor dispute is how owners and players should share the sport's approximately $9 billion in annual revenue under a salary cap system. The owners also want to install a wage scale for rookies and extend the regular season to 18 games.

Sources throughout the sport said they didn't believe a settlement was within reach, at least not soon, and that both sides were prepared to escalate the dispute. The players could decertify their union Thursday, hours before the expiration of the current labor deal, in anticipation of filing antitrust litigation against the owners, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the players' strategy publicly.

The owners are scheduled to meet Wednesday and Thursday at a hotel near Dulles International Airport and could make a final decision then about locking out players as soon as Friday, sources said. The NFL hasn't had a work stoppage since a strike by the players in 1987.

The two sides could agree to postpone Thursday's 11:59 p.m. bargaining deadline if there is progress toward a settlement. But as of Tuesday evening, there were few signs of the negotiations advancing toward a deal.

Seattle Seahawks offensive lineman Chester Pitts said as he left the meeting late Tuesday afternoon he was "cautiously optimistic" a settlement could be reached. "It's two groups doing business," Pitts said. "The tone, none of that matters. . . . The fans should know that both parties are hammering away at it and really trying to get a deal done."

Jeff Pash, the league's lead negotiator, said as he entered the meeting that the owners were committed to the mediation process. "We all know what the calendar is and we all know what's at stake for everybody," he said. "That's why we're here."

New York Giants co-owner John Mara was part of the league's bargaining contingent. No owners had participated in the mediated negotiations previously.

By decertifying the union, players would, in effect, put the NFLPA out of business as their bargaining agent. That move would give them the right to file antitrust litigation against the owners and seek an injunction in court to block or lift any lockout. An injunction would keep the sport operating while the dispute plays out in court.

That approach has been successful for players in the past. The sport's longstanding system of free agency and a salary cap were put in place in the early 1990s as part of a settlement of antitrust litigation filed by the players.

But the owners could lock out the players Friday even if the union is decertified. Some legal experts have said that could be a risky decision, because the lockout could be cited in antitrust litigation, with damages at stake. Others, however, have said the move might not technically be considered a lockout if the union already has been decertified; rather a court might consider it the owners choosing to shut down their business.

The league already has filed an unfair labor practice charge against the union with the National Labor Relations Board that could complicate any attempt by the players to decertify the union. The league accused the players' side of preferring decertification and antitrust litigation to a negotiated settlement. The NLRB is investigating the charge and a resolution probably is not imminent.

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