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Secret NFL talks bode well

Without lawyers, key figures met for two days

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / June 3, 2011

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There is hope on the National Football League labor front.

Yesterday, Judge Magistrate Arthur Boylan of US District Court in Minnesota canceled the two mediation sessions scheduled for next week between the NFL and its players because “the court has been engaged in confidential settlement discussions’’ of the Brady v. NFL case.

Those discussions took place the past two days in Chicago, held in secret between key members on both sides. Negotiations are expected to resume next week.

It’s a very significant step toward a labor agreement, according to sources on both sides.

It’s also an admission by both sides that some sort of time frame has to be put in place to get a deal done, or they’re going to head into the abyss of games being missed, and then it would be extremely difficult to reach an agreement that is fair to all.

Best case is that the sides reach a settlement within a month. But there are two lingering court decisions on the way that could affect any progress: Judge David Doty deciding on damages for the players in the TV rights case, and the decision on the preliminary injunction by the 8th Circuit Court, which will hear oral arguments today in St. Louis.

Doty’s decision is imminent. The 8th Circuit Court could take six weeks to make its decision.

And as with any negotiation, talks could break down at any time. But this was a major breakthrough.

For one thing, both sides finally took the lawyers out of the negotiations. Whether it’s Bob Batterman and Jeff Pash for the NFL, or Jeff Kessler and Jim Quinn for the Players Association, the lawyers added angst to the previous negotiations, which got little accomplished.

The talks were held in secret, and important people on both sides were not clued in. Several owners and league officials had no knowledge of the talks. Same on the players’ side. That was designed to limit leaks and to keep the pre-meeting rhetoric to a minimum so progress could be made.

The composition of the two sides that did meet was significant. For the NFL, it was commissioner Roger Goodell, and owners Robert Kraft (Patriots), Jerry Jones (Cowboys), John Mara (Giants), Art Rooney (Steelers), and Jerry Richardson (Panthers). For the players, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith was there, as were players Kevin Mawae, Mike Vrabel, Jeff Saturday, Domonique Foxworth, and Tony Richardson.

Boylan was also there but was more of a spectator. This meeting was about, finally, the sides talking face to face.

That the talks took place with litigation looming indicates that the posturing is over, and that was a must for any deal to happen.

It’s important to note that a settlement is now the apparent course of resolution, not the players dropping their antitrust lawsuit. That would be a concession on the part of the owners, who had said they had “no interest’’ in settlement discussions. Settling the case would keep the next collective bargaining agreement under the purview of the court, as it has been since 1993. The NFL wanted the CBA to be handled by independent third-party arbiters.

The NFLPA is giving things back as well, including recertification when a deal is reached.

A settlement would be of a “global’’ variety, meaning all pending litigation — from the antitrust suit and the preliminary injunction case, to collusion and the Doty decision — would be settled at the same time. It also means the settlement will be very complex.

“This is easily the biggest step since March 11 [when the NFLPA decertified],’’ said a source close to the negotiations. “It’s a very, very important step but it does not necessarily mean that there’s going to be instantaneous progress. We’re on the right track, but there’s a ways to go.’’

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

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