MINNEAPOLIS — After four long and intense mediation sessions between the NFL and its locked-out players, the judge decided to give both parties an extended break.
By the time they reconvene in mid-May, the landscape of their discussions could be completely different.
Executive vice president Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead negotiator, said Wednesday that U.S. Judge Magistrate Arthur Boylan told both sides they likely won't convene again until May 16 because he has a few other matters on his judicial calendar.
In the interim, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson is expected to decide well before then on the players' request to immediately lift the now 40-day-old lockout.
Also coming: U.S. District Judge David Doty has scheduled a hearing for May 12 on the players' request for damages after he ruled in March that the NFL did not maximize revenues for both sides when it renegotiated $4 billion in TV contracts with the labor dispute looming.
Finally, there could be a fourth set of lawyers and players at the mediation table, with a Philadelphia law firm talking with another group of players about joining the fight.
"We've had discussions about representing some additional players who want to have a voice in the matter," said Bryan Clobes of Cafferty Faucher.
Those discussions are ongoing, but all of those elements combined could swing the leverage to one side or the other in a case where there has been little of it, perhaps increasing the chances the court-ordered mediation will produce some much-needed progress with the first preseason game just 3 1/2 months away.
"There's a lot of uncertainties right now," Pash said. "I think when we're back together we'll know more. People's legal positions will be clearer."
Both sides said the sessions with Boylan were positive and productive.
"I think everybody believes it was helpful and that's really where we are," said Jim Quinn, an attorney for the players.
Hall of Fame player Carl Eller agreed.
"I do feel very positive about the 2011 season," Eller said. "I think everybody has come here with the idea to have a 2011 season and it's just not been easy to get to that point. So I think everybody's been working hard toward that goal. Seeing them work to that end makes me much more optimistic. I would certainly say we're going to have a 2011 season."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league is planning to start the season on time despite the lengthy process of navigating the legal system.
"We're planning to play a full season and we're going to negotiate as hard as we can to get that done," Goodell told Giants season-ticket holders in a conference call during a break in mediation session at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis.
Later, he reiterated that commitment during a forum with 49ers fans, saying there are "a number of pressing issues that need to be addressed responsibly."
"It has a negative impact on everybody, especially our fans," Goodell said of the lockout. "We need to get these things addressed immediately. We feel there's plenty of time to get that done. On behalf of the 32 clubs, we're going to do everything we can to make sure we play our full season this year."
Goodell, Packers CEO Mark Murphy, Falcons president Rich McKay and owners Pat Bowlen of Denver, Jerry Jones from Dallas and Jerry Richardson from Carolina attended Wednesday's session. Players Ben Leber and Mike Vrabel were joined by Eller and attorneys for the players.
Goodell said all parties involved remain committed to ending the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 before games are lost. The preseason starts on Aug. 7 and the first regular season game is scheduled for Sept. 8, less than five months from now.
"I think fans want solutions. I want solutions," he said. "I think the players want solutions and I think the teams want solutions. That's why we have to be working at it in negotiations and figuring out how to get to that point."
Players including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning filed the injunction request along with a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. The lawsuit has been combined with two other similar claims from retirees, former players and rookies-to-be, with Eller the lead plaintiff in that group.
Nelson ordered the two sides into mediation while she considered the request and they met with Boylan following 16 days of failed talks in front of a federal mediator in Washington.
"I think you can't sort of measure this like a stock table in what's going up or down on any given day but it's always a positive to be able to talk to people," Pash said.
Pash said he felt the talks were particularly productive between the league and retired players, and that the owners remain committed to improving benefits and taking care of their former players.
The league and players disagree sharply on how to divide more than $9 billion in annual revenue.
The owners initially wanted to double the money they get off the top for expenses from about $1 billion to about $2 billion, but that number dropped during the first round of mediation. The players have insisted on full financial disclosure from all 32 teams, and so far the league has not opened the books to their liking.
Other major issues include benefits for retired players and the NFL's desire to stretch the regular season from 16 to 18 games. The NFL also wants to cut almost 60 percent of guaranteed pay for first-round draft picks, lock them in for five years and divert the savings to veterans' salaries and benefits.
More than $525 million went to first-rounders in guaranteed payments in 2010. The league wants to decrease that figure by $300 million, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
In other news, the Sports Business Journal reported Wednesday that a group of about 70 "mid-tier" players was considering hiring a law firm and upset that the talks broke off last month. But Clobes said the number is "nowhere near 70" and that it does not indicate any dissatisfaction with the way things are progressing.
"The players have extremely capable counsel," Clobes said. "If we were to get involved, it would be so we could add and lend our expertise, not because we thought the current lawyers were not doing a credible job. They're doing an incredible job."
Cafferty Faucher also is representing clients in former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon's class-action lawsuit against the NCAA for selling the use of his and other athletes' likeness in video games and other media.
DeMaurice Smith, the head of the players' trade association, said he was unaware of the development. Vrabel said he had not heard of the report, either, but the additional players "do have a seat (at the table), with Ben and me."
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