By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 1:08 AM
Negotiators for the NFL and its players' union on Friday gave themselves another week to preserve the sport's 24 years of labor peace, agreeing to extend negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement by seven days.
The week-long postponement of their deadline came a day after the two sides first avoided a showdown by approving a 24-hour delay in the expiration of the labor pact. But the second extension greatly increased hopes around professional football that a settlement could be reached next week. Some progress was made in negotiations Thursday.
"There's a commitment from both sides to engage in another round of negotiations at the request of the mediation service," DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said at an afternoon news conference held after the two sides had agreed to continue talking. "We look forward to a deal coming out of that."
But some in the sport cautioned that significant differences between the two sides remain, especially on the key issue of how to split the league's $9 billion in annual revenue. A second postponement does not necessarily mean that a settlement will follow soon, they said.
"It's a challenge," said Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead negotiator. "We've got very serious issues. We've got significant differences. But we are committed to collective bargaining."
The negotiations are scheduled to resume Monday, after a weekend off, at the downtown Washington offices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
"We believe, as I've said many times before, that this will be solved through negotiations, and that's what we focused on," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. "So we'll continue to work hard and we'll be back next week."
By late Thursday night, there were indications that union officials were on board with the second extension of talks. Federal mediator George H. Cohen needed only to secure the league's approval as well. That assent came Friday.
"There's been enough serious discussion to warrant both sides taking this step and the mediators felt it and that's why they requested it of us," Pash said. "If they believe that we're in a position where we can make progress and get to an agreement, then I think it's incumbent upon us and our ownership feels it's incumbent to make that effort."
Participants in the talks refused to characterize the progress made at the bargaining table, continuing to honor Cohen's request not to comment on negotiations.
But sources said there was movement by both sides in Thursday's bargaining. That came after the negotiating leverage apparently tilted in the players' favor Tuesday when U.S. District Judge David S. Doty ruled in the union's favor in a case involving the league's television contracts.
The Minneapolis-based judge ruled that the structure of the contracts violated the settlement agreement that accompanies the sport's collective bargaining agreement. The union had alleged that the TV deals would provide the owners with, in effect, a $4 billion lockout fund during a work stoppage.
Doty, who has overseen the sport's labor deal since 1993, promised to hold a hearing to determine damages and other possible remedies. That threat, combined with the imminent original bargaining deadline of 11:59 p.m. Thursday, seemed to produce a different tone and approach to Thursday's negotiations, sources said.
To reach a settlement, the league and union will have to find a middle ground on the central issue of how much revenue would go to the players. The owners apparently would be credited with more than the $1.3 billion for expenses they receive before the players' portion is calculated. But they would not receive all of the additional $1 billion they have been seeking.
The union might accept the owners' proposal to lengthen the regular season from 16 to 18 games, sources said, if it can win concessions related to players' health and safety. According to sources, the two sides probably would agree to a rookie wage scale less restrictive than the one proposed by the league earlier in the bargaining.
Any settlement also would have to address the league's proposal that players be blood-tested for human growth hormone and the ongoing role of Doty in overseeing the labor deal, which is favored by the union and opposed by the league.
The last NFL work stoppage was in 1987, when players went on strike.