The NFL and its players have been ordered to begin mediation Thursday in a Minnesota courtroom, which might be a small victory for the players' side.
Judge Susan Nelson, who has presided over the preliminary injunction hearing to block the lockout, appointed Judge Arthur Boylan to mediate the sessions in his chambers. Boylan will meet with the players Tuesday and the NFL on Wednesday before bringing the two sides together Thursday morning.
Nelson has yet to decide on whether or not to block the lockout, but that decision should come in the next week. In the meantime, Nelson has exercised her authority to force the two sides to mediate.
Neither Nelson nor Boylan have the power to force the sides to reach an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, but the fact that they're talking in a professional setting is a good sign nonetheless.
Last week, the two sides each said they were willing to return to mediation, but they would only do it under their own terms, which was an empty claim by each camp. But since this round of mediation will happen in a court setting, the players will feel as though it is happening on their home turf, and the owners — if they take the negotiations seriously enough — might be more willing to loosen their CBA demands than they would in a mediation session in Washington, D.C. It's a reach, but it's possible.
Nelson also proclaimed that nothing in mediation can be used against either side in litigation, and that is both good and bad. It's good because it can give each side the freedom to speak at will without repercussion. It's bad for similar reasons, as one side could sit on its hands throughout the sessions with no real dedication to working toward an agreement.
For instance, the players know their best chance to return to work is through Nelson's injunction ruling. The owners, though, know their best chance to reach a CBA is through negotiations, and that won't come on their terms unless they're victorious in court. Therefore, if the owners are still trying to get their most favorable deal, they know it won't happen until the litigation is complete, and that includes Nelson's initial ruling and the appeal process. Essentially, if the owners are victorious in court, they'll hold a tremendous amount of leverage at the bargaining table.
Because of that, the owners might not have an incentive to compromise with the players on a new CBA through mediation in the courts. However, if the two sides are serious about working toward a new CBA as quickly as possible, these mediation sessions could be very beneficial.
It will take some time to determine that answer — it might be immediately apparent Thursday, or maybe next week — but Nelson did the only thing she could at the moment. She forced them to talk, and right now, that's all anyone can ask.