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Second extension of NFL talks

League, union add a week to deadline

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / March 5, 2011

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CHANTILLY, Va. — The National Football League and its players’ union went toe to toe this week as the deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement came and went the past two days without an agreement.

And they’ll do it all again next week.

The league and the NFL Players Association agreed to a seven-day extension on talks at the request of George Cohen, the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, who assisted the sides in talks the previous 11 days.

“I’m pleased to say, we have at least achieved [a] level of dialogue and [a] level of constructive discussion,’’ Cohen said outside of his office in Washington.

The extension agreed to yesterday came after the sides stopped the clock for 24 hours Thursday evening to get a longer extension worked out.

Whether the sides are close on a new CBA, which needs to be in place for the league to resume normal operations, is difficult to say. Both sides stayed away from characterizing how productive the talks have been.

“We’ve continued to work hard,’’ said commissioner Roger Goodell. “I think the fact that we are continuing this dialogue is a positive sign.’’

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said of the talks, “We look forward to a deal coming out of that.’’

It is certainly a positive that the sides have agreed to continue talking. The alternative was the NFLPA decertifying and bringing an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL — which a union source said it was prepared to do Thursday — and the league countering with a lockout.

“As I’ve repeated over and over again, this is going to get resolved through negotiations, not through litigation,’’ Goodell said. “So talking is better than litigating.’’

According to sources involved in the negotiations, an extension shows that both sides believe that the framework — the ability to discuss and compromise, which was lacking before mediation — is there for a deal to be struck.

It will not be an easy process, and it may not happen by Friday’s 5:30 p.m. deadline.

“If both sides give a little, everyone can gain a lot,’’ said Jeff Pash, the league’s general counsel and lead negotiator. “And that’s what we have to try to do next week. It’s a challenge, we’ve got very serious issues, we’ve got significant differences.’’

Make that nearly a billion dollars worth of significant differences. The split of the league’s approximately $9 billion in revenue and the NFL’s want of $1 billion credit for stadium costs and other investments needed to develop the product remain the biggest obstacles.

In addition to larger issues such as a rookie wage scale, where those savings would be applied, an 18-game regular season, and post-career benefits, both the league and union will have to work out smaller issues in order to get a deal done. Those include the jurisdiction of US District Court judge David Doty (a thorn in the side of ownership), free agency rules, how the expiration of the next CBA is dealt with (there was an uncapped year and additional restrictive free agency this time), and whether players will be reimbursed for the health care expenditures they’ve made (players won’t be covered if the CBA expires).

Basically, there is a ton more work to be done and it’s questionable whether five more days of mediation — the sides are meeting among themselves this weekend — is enough time. There could be another extension at the end of next week, but only if the sides are truly close to a deal.

“There has been a tremendous amount of discussion,’’ Pash said. “It’s time for us really to dig, to dig deep, and try to find solutions and try to be creative and try to compromise in a way that will work for everybody.’’

If the league and union can’t find common ground next week, they’ll be staring at the same abyss they went up against this week: a protracted work stoppage that would put the 2011 season in jeopardy.

“I think this is better than the alternative,’’ Pash said. “Should [fans] be optimistic? They know we’re talking. They know we’re working hard. I think that should be a positive.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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