After another long day of talk, some of it to each other, the NFL and its players union appear as far away as ever to staving off the expiration of the league's 18-year collective bargaining agreement come midnight Thursday.
Chances of a breakthrough in the CBA negotiations looked like an extreme long shot after the two sides met for almost four more hours with a federal mediator in downtown Washington D.C., with the owners then repairing to a suburban Virginia hotel to hold a brief three-hour meeting among themselves.
The next steps look like all but a fait accompli: The NFLPA is expected to announce plans to decertify as a union on Thursday, which puts it on the path to challenge the league on antitrust grounds, and the league will likely then put in place the lockout of players that has seemed almost inevitable since owners opted out of the current CBA in May 2008.
"We didn't break the room with a lockout vote. It was just an update [on the CBA negotiations],'' Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said, as he was leaving the Dulles-area hotel that league officials and owners convened at. "Owners were able to ask questions.''
But in reality, the league's full ownership body didn't have to take a lockout vote on Wednesday because the NFL's 10-member management council's executive committee, or CEC, is already authorized to make a lockout decision by virtue of its role. A league spokesman said that committee has not yet made any decision on a lockout.
"We're still working hard,'' New York Jets owner Woody Johnson said. "There are good intentions on both sides.''
Unlike the rest of the owners, the CEC, which is the league's labor bargaining committee, stayed at the hotel in Virginia after the main meeting broke in order to huddle for about an hour with the NFL's other top negotiators and commissioner Roger Goodell.
Afterward, a group of league negotiators and Goodell returned to downtown Washington Wednesday night to resume mediation with federal mediator George Cohen and NFLPA representatives and players. The two sides were scheduled to meet again starting early Thursday morning at Cohen's office, on the last day the CBA is in effect.
But despite meeting for a combined 11 hours so far over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday -- the eighth and ninth day of mediation sessions in the past two weeks -- significant progress of any kind remains almost nonexistent, sources on both sides say. It's as if the NFL and its player union both are determined to give every appearance of maximum negotiating effort, but no one is expressing optimism that real results are forthcoming.
Asked his expectations for Thursday's looming deadline, Irsay said: "I never have expectations, because it changes. It's a chess board that moves around and things change. It really is truly hard to predict.''
Owners uniformly declined to give an update on whether any progress was made during mediation, with Irsay adding, "I can't comment on that. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.''
As the CEC meeting broke Wednesday evening, at least three of its members -- Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Steelers owner Art Rooney -- said they were heading home and would not be taking part in any more mediation sessions in the near future. It was just another indication that in this long-anticipated labor showdown, it might be all over but the suing.
With the union poised to pursue decertification on Thursday, barring either a breakthrough development on the negotiation front or a mutually agreed upon temporary extension of the current CBA -- neither of which looks likely -- there's the possibility the NFLPA will file an injunction in federal court on Thursday to block or lift a potential lockout.
Wednesday at least started with a sense of potential on the face-to-face negotiation front, as the NFL's labor bargaining committee for the first time showed up en masse in downtown Washington to meet with the NFLPA and Cohen.
The league's CEC entered the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service office shortly before 10 a.m., led by co-chairs Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers and Pat Bowlen of the Denver Broncos.
"As you know we have a league meeting [in Chantilly, Va., today and Thursday] and we decided it would be a good idea for our full committee to meet with this mediation process,'' Richardson said. "And our objective of course is to negotiate a fair agreement for the players and the teams. So far we obviously haven't been successful. But we're optimistic in due time we will be.''
In addition to Richardson and Bowlen, other CEC members/owners present were Jones, Kraft, Rooney, Giants co-owner John Mara, Kansas City's Clark Hunt, San Diego's Dean Spanos, and Cincinnati's Mike Brown. Green Bay team president/CEO Mark Murphy, also a CEC member, was in attendance as well, as was Atlanta team president Rich McKay, and Washington general manager Bruce Allen.
"The CEC thought it would be a good idea for them to hear directly from the players, and speak with the mediator, so that when they give a report to the rest of the membership they are as informed as possible,'' NFL counsel and lead negotiator Jeff Pash said. "We have a league meeting today. It's been scheduled for quite a long time. The mediation sessions only began last week, but this was not a spur of the moment decision.''
Pash refused to comment on whether any progress was made in Tuesday's seven-hour mediation session on the key issues that separate the league and the union: the percentage of revenue split, the 18-game regular season and the rookie wage scale. But he said it was still possible that both sides could agree to extend the CBA past midnight Thursday and keep negotiating.
"I think we have to see where we are,'' Pash said. "We've said that's an option. So we're not taking anything off the table.''
Pash also said mediation talks could continue past the expiration of the CBA, and could continue right up until Thursday night.
"Certainly not,'' said Pash, when asked if Cohen's role would end after today. "Negotiations don't end today. You keep negotiating until you reach an agreement and I think the mediators, if they're willing, can continue to be a constructive part of that process. Absolutely [we could stay in mediation past Thursday]. It happens all the time. George Cohen would be the first one to tell you that.''
Pash also repeated the league's mantra that federal judge David Doty's ruling against the NFL Tuesday evening was not a game-changing event for these CBA talks. Doty ruled that the NFL violated the CBA by agreeing to $4 billion worth of network TV rights fees that would be payable even in the event of a work stoppage in 2011.
Doty did not yet rule whether the league owes the players financial damages due to the TV agreements, or specify whether the funds will be placed into an escrow account and kept off-limits to owners during a lockout, as the players' have sought. Doty has ordered a hearing with the league and the players union to settle those issues.
"It doesn't change the dynamic for us at all,'' Pash said. "We've been very clear that the television money was a loan, it's not a payment. It's not anything we were counting on. The decision was frankly not unexpected, so it doesn't alter our planning in one iota.''
The negotiations will likely continue for at least one more day in the NFL's looming labor fight, but as a long day of talk concluded, an agreement on how to bridge the divide that separates the league's owners and players looks as elusive as ever. Maybe arriving at the first real deadline of this stand off -- the expiration of the CBA -- will create progress and more of a sense of urgency that has existed so far. But if so, signs of hope were still not in sight Wednesday night.