WASHINGTON – NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and union head DeMaurice Smith met in front of a federal mediator for about six hours Friday, a bid to jump-start contentious and slow-moving labor negotiations two weeks before owners could lock out players and threaten the 2011 season.
Friday's session was the sides' first with George Cohen, the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a U.S. government agency.
More than two hours after Goodell and Smith arrived separately, the league and the NFL Players Association released a joint statement saying the mediation had started and that both parties agreed to adhere to Cohen's request that they not speak publicly about the process.
True to their word, Smith and other union representatives – including Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, former player Pete Kendall and NFLPA lawyer Richard Berthelsen — declined to answer questions on their way out of the meeting.
"There's not going to be any comment," Smith said as he walked out at 6:15 p.m., more than seven hours after he arrived.
Goodell and other members of the NFL's bargaining team – including the league's lead labor negotiator, Jeff Pash, and NFL outside counsel Bob Batterman — avoided media members in front of the building entirely. They left via another exit, an FMCS spokesman said.
It wasn't immediately clear when the sides would resume talks, although originally there were plans for several days of negotiations with Cohen present.
Pash did speak briefly when he and other NFL executives showed up Friday morning.
"We're going to participate fully, and we look forward to working with Mr. Cohen," he told The Associated Press.
Asked what progress he expected to come from mediation, Pash replied: "We don't know."
Cohen announced Thursday that both sides had agreed to have him participate in talks. Mediation is not binding.
The current collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the day March 3, and the union has said it expects a lockout to come as soon as the next day.
News of the start of mediation could be a positive sign after several months of infrequent negotiations.
The league and union went more than two months without holding any formal bargaining sessions, until a meeting Feb. 5, the day before the Super Bowl. The sides met again once last week but 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.
The biggest issue separating the sides is how to divide about $9 billion in annual revenues. Among the other significant points in negotiations: the owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; a rookie wage scale; and benefits for retired players.
Cohen was involved in Major League Soccer's negotiations with its players' union last year, when a possible work stoppage was avoided.
He was the baseball players' association's lead lawyer in federal court in 1995, when the National Labor Relations Board obtained an injunction against owners from then-District Judge – and now Supreme Court Justice – Sonia Sotomayor that led players to end their 7 1/2-month strike.
The FMCS was involved in negotiations during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, and a 2005 dispute between the U.S. Soccer Federation and its players.