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Stakes, tension rise as NFL labor deadline nears

By HOWARD FENDRICH
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 11:42 PM

WASHINGTON -- Rhetoric rose while the clock ticked down in the NFL's labor talks Thursday, with the league and players' union trading back-and-forth barbs a day before the twice-extended collective bargaining agreement expires.

With the two sides far apart on key economic issues, nine of the 10 members of the owners' labor committee joined NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at the office of the federal mediator overseeing the negotiations - but, the union complained, none of the owners met with any of the players on hand.

Even though there were small-group talks between NFL and union representatives on the 15th day of mediation, no one gave any indication that progress was made. Indeed, the loudest words came in the evening, sparked by comments from league general counsel and lead negotiator Jeff Pash.

"Things can come together quickly. Things can fall apart quickly," Pash said when the NFL negotiating team left for the day. "I've said it many times: If both sides have an equal commitment to getting this deal done, it will get done. I don't know if both sides have an equal commitment. ... Obviously, we have the commitment."

When that was relayed to NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah, he responded with an e-mail to The Associated Press that said: "Jeff Pash was part of an executive team that sold the networks a $4 billion ticket to a game they knew wouldn't be played. The only thing they've been committed to is a lockout."

That is a reference to a court ruling last week, when the federal judge overseeing NFL labor matters sided with players in their case accusing owners of improperly negotiating TV deals to prepare for a work stoppage.

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith then went back to the mediator's office to respond to Pash's statement himself.

"We have been committed to this process. But for anyone to stand and turn to the American people and say they question that?" Smith said. "Look, I understand that there's probably some things Jeff Pash just has to say, but this is the truth: We know that as early as March of 2009 ... the National Football League engaged in a strategy to get $4 billion of television money ... even if the games weren't played."

Joining in, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello tweeted: "When is union going to respond to our 150 pages of draft CBA provisions that they received eight days ago. Waiting."

The CBA originally was supposed to expire last week. The sides agreed to push that deadline to Friday; if a deal isn't reached, there could be another extension.

What certainly sounded more likely, given Thursday's tone, was that talks could break off, leading to a lockout by owners or decertification by the union, followed by antitrust lawsuits by players - actions that could threaten the 2011 season.

The NFL hasn't lost games to a work stoppage since 1987, when a strike shortened the season and some games included nonunion replacement players. The foundation of the current CBA was reached in 1993 by then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and union chief Gene Upshaw. It has been extended five times as annual revenues soared above $9 billion, the league expanded to 32 teams, and new stadiums were built.

The 2006 contract extension was the final major act for Tagliabue, who then retired, succeeded by Goodell. An opt-out clause for each side was included in that deal, and the owners exercised it in May 2008 - three months before Upshaw died. Smith replaced Upshaw in March 2009.

Two months later, Smith wrote Goodell a letter, asking for detailed financial statements from each of the 32 teams and the league as a whole. The NFL offered to turn over other economic data this week, and the NFLPA rejected that proposal, saying the investment bank advising the union determined the information would be "utterly meaningless" during the negotiations.

The NFL, meanwhile, said the union was offered unprecedented financial data, including some the league doesn't share with clubs.

Pash indicated there hadn't been movement on that issue Thursday.

The dispute centers on money: how to divide the billions in revenues, how much of that should go to owners off the top to cover certain costs, and the union's demand for what it calls "financial transparency."

Under the old CBA, owners received an immediate $1 billion to go toward operating expenses before splitting remaining revenues with players. Owners initially tried to add another $1 billion to that, and while they have lowered the up-front figure they want - at least down to an additional $800 million - Smith said it is still too much.

The labor committee members present Thursday were Jerry Richardson of the Panthers, Pat Bowlen of the Broncos, Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, John Mara of the Giants, Art Rooney II of the Steelers, Clark Hunt of the Chiefs, Mark Murphy of the Packers, Dean Spanos of the Chargers and Mike Brown of the Bengals. Eagles president Joe Banner and Redskins general manager Bruce Allen also were there.

While Mara, Hunt and Murphy occasionally participated in the talks since mediation began Feb. 18, a group this large attended only one previous session, last week.

The only missing member of the key league group was Patriots owner Robert Kraft, part of a delegation visiting Israel with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Asked Thursday whether he expects next season to start on time, Kraft said: "That's my belief."

There have been various issues discussed during negotiations, including the owners' push to increase the regular season from 16 games to 18; a rookie wage scale; and benefits for retired players.

But the rift is mainly about revenues.

And the acrimony - temporarily tamped down at federal mediator George Cohen's insistence when he began overseeing talks Feb. 18 - was out there for everyone to see Thursday night.

"We're going to be back here tomorrow," Smith said, "because we want football to continue."

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AP Sports Writer Joseph White in Washington, AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York, and Associated Press Writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Associated Press