For the first time publicly, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said tonight that an 18-game season is off the negotiating table in collective bargaining talks with the owners.
Speaking before approximately 100 fans during a joint event with radio station 106.7-FM "The Fan" at the union's downtown office, Smith was categorical that the players won't expand the regular season from 16 to 18 games. He previously had been nuanced in his remarks, saying any change would be predicated on significant adjustments to teams' offseason training programs and the amount of padded contact the players endured during in-season practices.
However when contacted after a Q&A session with fans, Smith reiterated that 18 games is a no-go with the players.
"First of all, the league has never presented a formal proposal for 18 games," he told SI.com. "But more importantly, it's something that our players don't want. Eighteen games is not in the best interest of our players' safety, so we're not doing it."
The expanded season was thought to be one of the key talking points in the sides' negotiations for a new agreement; the current deal expires Friday night. The other sticking points are a rookie wage scale -- Yahoo! Sports reported today the sides have agreed on the parameters of a new rookie compensation system -- and a redistribution of league revenues. The league is seeking an additional $1 billion per year in expense credits that would be taken off the top before revenues are divided among the players and owners. The union has said there will be no significant financial givebacks unless the owners open their books.
Speaking outside the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service offices in downtown Washington today after negotiations ended for the evening, Smith said: "How much financial information would you want before you write a $5 billion check?"
Smith was referring to the total amount owners are seeking over a potential five-year agreement.
Both sides spoke much more openly about money matters Wednesday than they have since they entered mediation Feb. 18. With the collective bargaining agreement set to expire Friday, they clearly are far apart on how to divide more than $9 billion in annual revenues.
On his way into the 14th session at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said the issue of financial transparency -- a key sticking point -- "really should be behind us."
"We've made more information available in the course of this negotiation than has ever been made available in decades of collective bargaining with the NFLPA," Pash said. "Far more information. And we've offered to make even more information [available], including information that we do not disclose to our own clubs."
But Smith called the data the NFL offered to provide "utterly meaningless." It was rejected, the union said, because it didn't include material requested nearly two years ago by Smith in a letter to Commissioner Roger Goodell.
"Has it gotten everything it wants? Evidently not. Have we offered to provide more? Absolutely," Pash said Wednesday evening. "And is it a subject that we're prepared to discuss? Absolutely."
Under the old CBA, owners received an immediate $1 billion for operating expenses before splitting remaining revenues with players; at the outset of negotiations, the NFL sought an additional $1 billion off the top.
"Just to be absolutely clear, the information that was offered wasn't what we asked for," Smith said, "and, according to our investment bankers and advisers, they told us that information would be utterly meaningless in determining whether to write an $800 million check to the National Football League" in each year of a new CBA.
"We have requested access to fully audited financial statements since May 2009," Smith said. "We believe that is the appropriate information to analyze the league's request to write a multibillion check to the owners."
In a letter dated May 18, 2009 -- a copy of which was obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press -- Smith asked Goodell to "provide audited financial statements concerning the operations of the 32 clubs and the league."
Smith attached a list of 10 categories of information he sought, including:
• total operating income;
• total operating expenses, such as player costs, team expenses, sales and marketing expenses, game expenses, salaries/payments to owners;
• profit from operations;
• net income;
• cash and investment assets.
In the letter, Smith noted the owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 as one reason "this information is critical in understanding the fair 'cost/compensation' model for players and teams."
In Minneapolis, meanwhile, the NFLPA asked the federal judge, who ruled in its favor in a case involving TV contracts, to release information that the NFL wants kept confidential. U.S. District Court judge David Doty sided with the players last week, saying the league illegally set up $4 billion in payments from networks -- money the union argued was collected to fund a lockout.
Wednesday's move seemed to be reminder to the league of two important points - the possibility of legal action if no new CBA is reached, and the union's insistence on transparency.
The NFLPA said in its filing that the NFL hasn't explained why material should be sealed and that the league hasn't cooperated with the union's attempt to propose limited redactions to protect third-party information only.
"The NFL cannot be permitted to comment publicly about these proceedings and then turn around to embrace a cloak of confidentiality that thwarts the public's right to know," union lawyers wrote.
The league said it would respond to the filing.
In Washington, Pash didn't reveal any specifics of the league's offer of financial information. But a person familiar with the negotiations told the AP that the NFL offered to turn over five years of league-wide profitability data to the union.
The person spoke on condition of anonymity because mediator George Cohen told participants not to publicly discuss details.
According to the person who spoke to the AP, the NFL's proposal to the union included:
• audited league-wide profitability data with dollar figures from 2005-09 that w ouldn't show information on a club-by-club basis;
• the number of teams that have seen a shift in profitability in that span;
• an independent auditor to examine the data.
As far back as 2009, Smith told Goodell: "As you know, the NFLPA does not have access to a wide range of information that is directly relevant to the contention that the current CBA fails to address the owners' concerns."
"For example," the letter said, "the NFL and the teams do not provide the NFLPA with their audited financial statements detailing the profit [loss] information for the teams. We also lack the information to discern the profits [losses] per regular season games, the profit per team per playoff game and other fixed financial non-player costs."
The CBA dates to 2006, but owners exercised an opt-out clause in 2008. The deal was set to expire last week, before two extensions pushed the cutoff to the end of Friday.
Goodell was joined by three members of the owners' 10-person labor committee: Art Rooney II of the Pittsburgh Steelers, John Mara of the New York Giants, and Clark Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs. More owners are expected to attend on Thursday.
If a deal isn't reached by Friday, the sides could agree to another extension. Or talks could break off, leading to, possibly, a lockout by owners or antitrust lawsuits by players.
"The commissioner said 'talking is better than litigating.' Talking is better than, you know, going to DEFCON 3 or whatever term I've heard thrown around," Pash said. "So let's keep at it."