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NFL, labor working to secure another extension in negotiations

Although some progress has been made this week on the outstanding issues in the National Football League's long-stalled collective-bargaining talks between the owners and the players, the two sides are not close to a new agreement, according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations. And though today's gathering at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service may not bring the two sides closer, it will be considered a success if it can stop the clock on the deadline of the current CBA -- scheduled to expire at 11:59 p.m. -- and extend the talks for another week or two.

The source said the progress "is no sham. I think the fans would be proud that both sides are trying their hardest to avoid the legal and political morass that would come with the CBA expiring. But it is very fragile right now.''

NFL officials showed up for an 11th day with mediator George Cohen in downtown Washington this morning. "It's worth continuing to talk,'' said NFL lead counsel Jeff Pash as he went into the building. It's thought that NFL officials would meet separately with the mediator first, then the union would meet with him separately, and then there would be a determination if the two sides would agree to a seven- to 10-day extension. Liz Mullen of Sports Business Journal reported this morning that the players have agreed to a 10-day extension suggested by Cohen, and now all that stands in the way is the owners okaying it.

The league has one more reason to want to make a deal now, two sources close to the talks say. The owners are desperate to not have U.S. District Judge David Doty supervise this bargaining agreement any longer -- and if the CBA expires, Doty retains control of the legal issues surrounding it. So Doty, unwittingly, has become the fourth major issue in the talks between players and owners. For months, the big three issues have been the owners' desire to have an additional $1 billion exempted from the revenue they share with players, the owners pushing a rookie wage scale, and the owners wanting an 18-game regular-season schedule to boost revenues for both sides.

Clearly now, Doty has emerged as a fourth key point of the talks. And that means it's highly likely the two sides will extend the deadline so talks can continue.

It was one thing for Doty, on Tuesday, to rule that the owners could not use their $4-billion pool of revenue to subsidize a lockout, which players had been chafing against for months. But the hidden meaning, and one not discussed nearly enough this week, came in the last paragraph of Doty's 28-page ruling.

"The court orders that a hearing be held concerning relief to be granted to the Players arising from the NFL's breach of the agreement,'' Doty ruled. "The hearing shall consider the award of both money damages and equitable relief, including injunction.''

That means Doty could hold the broadcast revenue in escrow for a full year, or until there's an agreement between the two sides. That would keep owners with annual debt-service payments of $50 million or more on their stadiums -- Daniel Snyder in Washington and Bob McNair in Houston are two owners with major mortgages on their facilities -- from accessing the TV money to pay for expenses during any prolonged labor dispute. How much could Doty sanction the owners? What could the damages be? No one knows, but he's issued so many rulings the owners loathe that they obviously are scared of finding out. And even though they could appeal Doty's ruling on damages to a three-judge Eighth Circuit panel, there's no guarantee that panel would be any friendlier to them than a widely respected jurist like Doty.

That puts the leverage clearly on the side of the players. Though the owners continue to insist that they won't show further financial information to the players that would confirm their contention that they're not making nearly the money on the game that they did before, now owners may have to be more transparent to have any chance for the players to agree to exempt more money from the funds that are split 60-40 in the players' favor now.

How optimistic should fans be now? I asked one person familiar with the talks that question this morning, and he said, "Well, there was more progress made in eight hours yesterday than there was in the previous two years. It behooves both sides to keep this out of antitrust legislation, for a variety of reasons. But there's a long, long way to go, and the only way we can start to get there is to have another extension.''

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