By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2011; 12:24 AM
The NFL was back on the brink of labor strife Thursday, as stalled negotiations between the league and the players' union left both sides braced for a bitter labor showdown that could begin as early as Friday afternoon.
Frustrated NFL and union officials exchanged angry accusations as the talks headed toward collapse, threatening the nation's most popular sport with its first work stoppage since players went on strike in 1987.
With their third bargaining deadline looming Friday, it appeared that federal mediator George H. Cohen would have difficulty getting the parties to agree to another postponement.
Neither side seemed to consider a settlement within immediate reach.
"If both sides have an equal commitment to getting this deal done, it will get done," Jeff Pash, the lead negotiator for the league, said early Thursday night. "I don't know if both sides have an equal commitment. You've heard plenty of what I've heard as well."
Pash said the owners are committed to a deal, adding he was "not suggesting anything about the other side."
DeMaurice Smith, the union's executive director, returned to the sidewalk outside the mediator's office to speak to reporters in a rainstorm and respond to Pash's comments.
"We're committed to this process," Smith said, reiterating the union's long-standing contention that the owners have been readying for a lockout for several years. "We have been committed to this process. But for anyone to stand and turn to the American people and say that they question that . . . I understand that there's probably some things that Jeff Pash has to say."
Smith wrote earlier Thursday on Twitter that players should "stay strong" and "stay informed" and they would be given an update by 2 p.m. Friday.
That prompted speculation by some within the sport that negotiations could be cut off by then, barring unexpected progress.
The sport's current labor deal runs through 11:59 p.m. Friday after two postponements totaling eight days.
Because of notification deadlines in court and elsewhere, the players would be likely to decertify the union by late Friday afternoon, hours before the labor agreement expires.
Dissolving the union as the players' bargaining agent would enable them to file antitrust litigation against the owners. The players also would be likely to seek an injunction as soon as Friday in the Minneapolis courtroom of U.S. District Judge David S. Doty in an attempt to prevent owners from locking them out Saturday.
Most of the members of the owners' bargaining committee were on hand to participate in Thursday's meeting at the downtown Washington offices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
It was the fourth day of mediated negotiations this week and 15th overall.
The union expressed annoyance there were no face-to-face meetings Thursday involving owners.
Pash said there were meetings between negotiators for the two sides in which proposals were exchanged. The league conducted a conference call with team owners, not only those attending the negotiations, early Thursday evening.
It's not clear if there will be another postponement, Pash said.
"Everyone knows where the calendar is," Pash said. "Everyone knows what's potentially on the table [Friday]. As long as the mediators want to keep the process going, we're here and ready to work."
Smith said late Wednesday that the league and union were $800 million per year apart on the core economic issue of how to divide the sport's approximately $9 billion in annual revenues. Sources said Thursday that the gap had been narrowed to substantially less than $700 million.
When the salary cap was in effect under the sport's expiring labor deal, the owners were credited with about $1.3 billion per year for expenses, and the players received roughly 60 percent of the remaining revenues. The league originally sought another $1 billion annually for expenses before the players would receive their cut.
George Atallah, the union's assistant executive director of external affairs, wrote Thursday on Twitter: "I would like to request an expense credit from the owners on the last [three] hours of my life."
The players' side has maintained that the sport's economic circumstances do not justify such a financial concession.
The union rejected an offer by the league this week to provide aggregate profitability data over a five-year span and is seeking full, audited financial data for each of the teams over a longer period, perhaps 10 years.
Smith told a group of fans Wednesday night that the union did not intend to accept a proposal by the league to extend the regular season from 16 to 18 games per team.
Sources on both sides denied a report this week that they had agreed to a rookie wage scale. The league also has proposed having players blood-tested for human growth hormone.
Meantime, a settlement would require the two sides to resolve their differing views on whether Doty's oversight of the sport's labor deal should continue.