By HOWARD FENDRICH
WASHINGTON (AP) — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and union head DeMaurice Smith refuse to reveal anything publicly about where things stand in their labor talks.
Everyone will know something substantive soon enough — less than a week from now, if not sooner.
That’s because the current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire at the end of the day next Thursday, and federal mediation between the sides will resume less than 72 hours before that. After a full week overseeing face-to-face meetings — more than 40 hours spread over seven consecutive days — mediator George Cohen said “very strong differences remain on the all-important core issues that separate the parties.”
He also said: “At bottom, some progress was made.”
Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, did not explain in his written statement Thursday where the progress came or where the differences stand. The biggest sticking point all along has been how to divide about $9 billion in annual revenues, including what cut the 32 team owners should get up front to help cover certain costs, such as stadium construction.
Among the other significant topics in negotiations: a rookie wage scale; the owners’ push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; and benefits for retired players.
If there’s no new deal in place a week from now, the union thinks owners will move to lock out players, threatening the 2011 season. And owners think the union will decertify, allowing for an antitrust lawsuit.
The NFL has said, however, that the deadline could be extended.
“If you’re making progress, you can stop the clock,” the league’s lead labor negotiator, Jeff Pash, said three weeks ago. “It’s not a ‘Thelma & Louise’-type situation, where you just go over the cliff.”
Cohen’s public comments Thursday were his first since he began working with Goodell, Smith and their negotiating teams last week.
No NFL team owners attended the talks in Washington. Ten active players did at some point, including the four NFLPA executive committee members present Wednesday and Thursday: Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, Denver Broncos safety Brian Dawkins, and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel and guard Brian Waters.
“Just continue talking, man — that’s what we’re doing,” Saturday said. “I think ownership — everybody — needs to know that we’re all committed to it and committed to getting something done.”
Members of both groups now head to Indianapolis for the NFL’s annual scouting combine for draft prospects; the league briefed general managers, coaches and other team officials for 45 minutes Thursday about what the rules would be if the CBA does expire, while the union speaks to agents on Friday.
“Basically, it was about where we are, where we hope to get and, in case (a new CBA) doesn’t get there, scenarios that will play out,” Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said after the NFL meeting in Indianapolis. “So we got a little bit of information.”
In other words: He and everyone else must wait to see what happens next week. In addition to the return to mediation in Washington, team owners are scheduled to meet in nearby Chantilly, Va., Wednesday and Thursday.
Seeking to keep a lid on what’s happening in the talks, the NFL sent an e-mail on behalf of Goodell to team owners, presidents, general managers and PR employees Thursday, attaching a copy of Cohen’s statement and saying: “We will have no further comment beyond this release and no club or member of your organization should comment beyond this release.”
After months of infrequent and sometimes contentious talks, the NFL and union have been communicating regularly with Cohen present. The sides went more than two months without any formal bargaining until Feb. 5, the day before the Super Bowl. The sides met again once the next week, then called off a second meeting that had been scheduled for the following day.
The most recent CBA was signed in 2006, but owners exercised an opt-out clause in 2008.
During the mediation — which was voluntary and intended to spur progress — the sides have been talking both in full groups and in smaller subcommittee meetings.
“Our time together has been devoted to establishing an atmosphere conducive to meaningful negotiations and, of course, matters of process and substance,” Cohen said in Thursday’s statement. “I can report that throughout this extensive period the parties engaged in highly focused, constructive dialogue concerning a host of issues covering both economics and player-related conditions.”
Also Thursday, there was a hearing before a U.S. District Court judge in Minneapolis to discuss the NFLPA’s complaint that the league improperly negotiated TV deals. The union has accused the NFL of structuring contracts so owners would be guaranteed money from networks even if there were a lockout in 2011 — while not getting the most revenue possible in other seasons, when income would need to be shared with players.
It’s not clear when there will be a decision in the case.
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