NFL owners, players in standoff on key economic issues; union may not agree to 18-game season

NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith leaves a meeting with the NFL as they seek an agreement to reach a deal and avoid a lockout.
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith leaves a meeting with the NFL as they seek an agreement to reach a deal and avoid a lockout. (Reuters)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 11:52 PM

The bargaining positions of the league and the players' union in the NFL's labor dispute appeared to be hardening Wednesday, as the two sides remained at a standoff on key economic issues and the union raised new doubts about whether it would agree to a proposed 18-game season under any circumstances.

DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, told a gathering of fans Wednesday night at the union's headquarters that an 18-game season is not good for the players and that the union won't agree to such a proposal by the league. But sources said the union has not informed the league in negotiations that it has formally taken an 18-game season off the bargaining table.

The ongoing differences have made a settlement by Friday's 11:59 p.m. bargaining deadline appear increasingly out of reach, sources familiar with the deliberations said. It will take movement in the bargaining or another unexpected late-week twist, according to the sources, to avoid the players decertifying the union Friday and seeking a court injunction to block a lockout Saturday of the players by the sport's franchise owners.

Only a major change in the incoming days could make a settlement this week a significant possibility, the sources said. A third postponement of the deadline remains possible, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations are at a sensitive stage.

One source called Smith's comments about an 18-game season a bad sign for the negotiations, saying, "When one side says everything is negotiable and the other starts taking things off the table and drawing lines in the sand, that side is getting ready to walk."

Last week's postponements of the bargaining deadline, the first for 24 hours and the second for a week, buoyed hopes around the sport that a settlement this week was possible or perhaps even likely. But people close to the negotiations cautioned at the time that the league and union still were between $750 million and $800 million per year apart on the central issue of how much of the sport's approximately $9 billion in annual revenues would go to the players under a salary cap system.

It appears that little or no progress has been made this week on that issue, and the talks have stalled over the terms by which the league would attempt to satisfy the union's long-standing demand for more financial information about the teams.

One source familiar with the deliberations said Wednesday that the league offered the union five years of audited annual NFL profitability data covering the 2005 to 2009 seasons. The data would not have disclosed annual profits or losses for each team, the source said, but would have given the combined annual profits of the 32 teams. It also would have listed the number of teams that annually posted better or worse financial results relative to the previous year. Under the league's offer, an independent auditor would have been chosen to verify the data but the union rejected the offer, calling the data "insufficient" and refused to look at it, the source said.

According to the source, such data is not available to the teams and the league viewed the offer as a significant concession and a start to a negotiating process on the topic in which the terms would be negotiable, the source said.

Other sources have said the union is seeking audited, full financial statements for each of the teams covering a longer span, perhaps 10 years.

"The information that was offered wasn't what we asked for," Smith said after Wednesday's bargaining meeting. "And according to our investment bankers and our advisers, they told us that information would be utterly meaningless in making a determination about whether to write an $800 million check to the National Football League in the first year, $800 million in the second year, $800 million in the third, $800 million in the fourth year and $800 million in the fifth year."

Jeff Pash, the lead negotiator for the league, said: "It is a fact that the Players Association in the course of these negotiations has received more and more detailed financial information than it has ever had before. Has it gotten everything it wants? Evidently not. Have we offered to provide more? Absolutely. Is it a subject we're prepared to discuss? Absolutely."

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