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Mediator says 'very strong differences remain' in NFL labor dispute

By Mark Maske

UPDATED (6:58 p.m.)...

INDIANAPOLIS--The federal mediator overseeing the NFL's labor talks said Thursday that "some progress" has been made in the negotiations between the league and the players' union but "very strong differences remain" on the core issues of the dispute.

The talks before the mediator are to resume Tuesday, said George H. Cohen, the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

"At bottom, some progress was made, but very strong differences remain on the all-important core issues that separate the parties," Cohen said in a written statement. "Nonetheless, I recommended and the parties have agreed to resume the mediation process in my office commencing next Tuesday.... During the intervening weekend, the parties have been asked by us to assess their current positions on those outstanding issues."

Representatives of the league and union met at the agency's offices in downtown D.C. on each of the past seven days.

The labor deal between the sport's franchise owners and the union expires March 4. Players and union officials have said they expect the players to be locked out by the owners soon after, unless there's an agreement on a new deal by then.

The announcement by Cohen came as activities at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis were getting under way. Members of the league's competition committee and representatives of the union gathered Thursday afternoon for their annual player-safety meeting. The league briefed coaches and general managers Thursday evening about operational issues related to the labor situation. Union officials are to address agents Friday.

Perhaps more than ever, the sport appears headed to a labor confrontation between the owners and players, with Cohen's involvement in the negotiations so far failing to produce an agreement between the two sides about how much of the sport's approximately $9 billion in annual revenues should go to the players under a salary cap system.

The NFL hasn't had a work stoppage since strikes by the players in 1982 and '87.

"Our time together has been devoted to establishing an atmosphere conducive to meaningful negotiations and, of course, matters of process and substance," Cohen said in Thursday's written statement. "I can report that throughout this extensive period the parties engaged in highly focused, constructive dialogue concerning a host of issues covering both economics and player-related conditions. The tenor of the across-the table discussions reflected a noteworthy level of mutual respect even in the face of strongly held competing positions. The parties met both in full committee and in subcommittees where discrete, technical issues lent themselves to smaller groups."

The owners are scheduled to meet next Wednesday and Thursday at a hotel near Dulles Airport. The current labor deal runs through 11:59 p.m. next Thursday. The league and union could agree to postpone the deadline for a new deal if progress toward an agreement has been made by then.

Cohen announced last Thursday that the league and union had agreed to participate in mediation. The two sides met with Cohen for the first time last Friday. At Cohen's request, participants in the meeting agreed not to comment on the details of the mediated negotiations.

The league has asked the union to agree to credit the owners with an additional $1 billion for expenses before the players' portion of the revenues would be calculated under a salary cap system. The players have rejected that request, saying it would result in them taking a substantial pay cut that is not justified, they have said, by the sport's economic circumstances.

The league also has proposed extending the regular season to 18 games per team, implementing a rookie wage scale and having players blood-tested for human growth hormone. The union has expressed wariness about each of those proposals.

On Thursday, a federal judge in Minneapolis declined to make an immediate ruling in a case in which the union has challenged the structure of the league's network television contracts. A hearing took place Thursday before U.S. District Judge David S. Doty.

The union has contended that the TV deals would provide the owners with what would amount to a lockout fund during a work stoppage. The union is appealing the case to Doty after Stephen B. Burbank, the University of Pennsylvania law professor who serves as the NFL's special master, awarded only a fraction of the damages the union was seeking and refused to bar the league from receiving TV payments during a work stoppage.

The union has a separate case before Burbank accusing teams of improperly colluding to restrict players' salaries last offseason. The National Labor Relations Board is investigating an unfair labor practice charge by the league against the union. The league accused the union of failing to bargain in good faith, contending that the players plan to decertify the union and file an antitrust lawsuit against the owners.

Both sides are making contingency plans. New York Giants co-owner John Mara said Thursday that his team had no immediate plans for layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts for any employees in a prospective lockout. The Giants would impose a hiring freeze, Mara said.

"Everybody's got to make their own decisions," Mara said. "We just looked at our organization and made the decisions we're comfortable with."

Coaches and general managers spent about 45 minutes Thursday evening in a briefing with the league.

Jacksonville Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio said the meeting was "basically kind of a review of where we are. We hope to get something done. In case it doesn't, here are some of the scenarios that can play out. We got some information."

Del Rio said the coaches and GMs received only a brief update on the labor negotiations.

"Only that they continue to talk," Del Rio said.

Teams are preparing for an NFL draft that will take place as scheduled in April even if there is a lockout. The current labor deal contains a provision for the draft to take place. Other player-related moves, including trades and free agent signings, would be put on hold during a lockout.

"The people who are involved in it are working hard," Del Rio said. "I'll just focus on the things that I need to focus on. We're trying to just prepare for the draft and our own stuff."

By Mark Maske  |  February 24, 2011; 12:16 PM ET  | Category:  League , Union Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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