By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 12:45 AM
The NFL and its players' union paused at the precipice of labor strife Thursday, agreeing to extend talks on a new collective bargaining agreement by one day and averting a confrontation as they continue to work toward a new pact.
The 24-hour delay is designed to determine whether a longer postponement, perhaps a week, might offer any realistic hope for a settlement, according to sources on both sides of the dispute.
The labor deal between the league and the NFL Players Association now is scheduled to expire at 11:59 p.m. Friday. It appeared late Thursday night that the union was willing to have the bargaining deadline postponed again but it wasn't clear if the league would agree. It was possible the sides would have separate meetings Friday with the mediator.
The agreement to extend the talks came about 5 p.m. Thursday, approximately seven hours before the labor agreement originally was scheduled to expire. Negotiators for the league and union met Thursday with mediator George H. Cohen at the downtown Washington offices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
Cohen, the agency's director, announced the postponement in a one-sentence written statement that said, "The parties have agreed to a one-day extension."
DeMaurice Smith, the union's executive director, thanked fans when he spoke briefly to a large group of reporters gathered on the sidewalk outside the agency's offices on K Street NW.
"To all of our fans who dig our game, we appreciate your patience as we work through this," Smith said. "We're going to keep working. We want to play football."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters Thursday, "We're working as hard as we can."
It was the 10th day of mediated negotiations under Cohen's supervision, three of which were this week. The participants continued to adhere to Cohen's request that they refrain from public comments about the specifics of the talks.
But sources around the sport, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations are at a sensitive stage, said there was some movement in the bargaining late Wednesday night and Thursday. It was not enough to raise hopes of a settlement Friday, the sources said, but it was sufficient to prompt the parties to consider extending the talks another seven days.
The possibility of a postponement apparently was discussed Wednesday night when Cohen met with a contingent of NFL negotiators that included Goodell, attorneys Jeff Pash and Bob Batterman, New York Giants co-owner John Mara and Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy. Negotiators for the union rejoined the talks Thursday morning and discussions of a postponement intensified.
Hopes around the sport for a settlement likely would increase greatly if a one-week postponement is approved Friday. That would be a signal that the two sides believe a new agreement could be within reach.
Cohen cannot force the league and union, which are participating in federal mediation voluntarily, into a settlement or a postponement of the bargaining deadline. The owners and players agreed to multiple extensions of the bargaining deadline before completing their last labor settlement in 2006.
The owners had been preparing to lock out players as early as midnight Friday, a move that would have ended most of the league's offseason activities, except for the April college draft.
The players, in turn, were poised to decertify their union Thursday, which would have enabled them to file antitrust litigation against team owners, and seek an injunction in court to block a lockout.
A postponement also prevents the NFL's free agent market from opening Friday as scheduled. Under the terms of the postponement, teams also are prohibited from re-signing their own players Friday or signing players who have been released by other clubs, although negotiations with those players are permitted. All signings of players and trades would be put on hold if there is a lockout.
The owners and the union have been unable to agree on how much of the sport's approximately $9 billion in annual revenue should go to the players under a salary cap system. The owners, who currently receive $1.3 billion toward their expenses before the players' share is calculated, want an additional credit of $1 billion.
The players have rejected that proposal as a request for a pay cut not justified by pro football's economic circumstances.
Owners also want to extend the season to 18 games, impose a wage scale for rookies and test players for the use of human growth hormone. Players have raised objections to those proposals as well.
President Obama said Thursday that he would not become involved in the dispute.
"I'm a big football fan," he said, "but I also think that for an industry that's making $9 billion a year in revenue, they can figure out how to divide it up in a sensible way. My expectation and hope is that they will resolve it without me intervening, because it turns out I've got a lot of other stuff to do."