A very different kind of countdown to kickoff is under way here in downtown D.C., as the NFL and its players union continued to take part in mediation talks Tuesday as they approach the expiration of the league's collective bargaining agreement at midnight Thursday.
But no one knows exactly what we're counting down to this week. Will it be an NFL-orchestrated lockout that kicks off at that long-awaited hour, effectively beginning the first real labor crisis that the league has faced since the 1987 season? Or will the NFL Players Association move to decertify itself as a union, perhaps blocking the league's owners from shutting down the game? Or will the two sides make enough progress in this week's negotiations to merit stopping the clock, with a temporary extension of the CBA in order to continue working to toward a new deal?
"I don't think you could have a greater sense of urgency,'' NFL general counsel and lead negotiator Jeff Pash said, as he arrived early Tuesday afternoon at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service office of George Cohen, after the two sides took a four-day break from talks. "We all know what the calendar is and we all know what's at stake for everybody. That's why we're here. We're going to work as long as it takes and as hard as it takes to get something done.''
While talks continued into Tuesday night in D.C., one development early in the evening has the potential to have a significant impact on the negotiations: Federal Judge David 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, however, 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.
While the Doty ruling is a victory for the players and gives them more leverage in their showdown with owners, there is some debate whether it will have as much as an impact on leveling the playing field in the negotiations as the union hopes. A Standard & Poor's report this week said based on findings connected to the state of teams' stadium debt service, the NFL could go at least a year into a lockout without needing the $4 billion in revenue that the TV contracts provide for, and in the case of some stadiums, even a second year. League estimates had called for a lockout of at least one year in length before the owners would need to access the TV money, which eventually has to be paid back to the networks in the event of no games being played in 2011.
Thus, while Doty's ruling is a blow to the NFL, it is not seen as a potential kill shot that immediately changes the dynamics of the ongoing CBA negotiations. League sources painted the Doty ruling as somewhat expected, and said it would potentially hurt the NFL's bargaining position if Doty locks up the TV money in an escrow account and awards a significant amount of damages to the players. But those key details are not yet known until the hearing before Doty.
While it may not have an immediate impact on the tone of negotiations, Doty's ruling weakens the league's hand. The owners considered the $4 billion generated by those 2009 extensions of the league's TV contracts a key component of their preparation for the labor showdown to come in 2011, and they considered the absence of such income a deal-breaker in negotiations with the networks. Clearly the availability of that money was important enough for the NFL to draw that line in the sand with its TV partners.
Meanwhile, there were at least a few outward signs that the looming CBA deadline prompted both sides to bring their A teams to the bargaining table on Tuesday. New York Giants co-owner John Mara attended Tuesday's mediation session, after no team owner had made it to any of the seven days worth of talks that were held last week in Washington. In addition to Mara, who has always been thought of as a voice of reason and player-friendly owner within NFL circles, Atlanta Falcons team president Rich McKay and Washington general manager Bruce Allen attended Tuesday's meeting in another sign of heightened participation from management's side. Mara's presence was seen as the league's attempt to involve one of the better consensus-builders in the league.
As for the union, it was represented in droves by players such as NFLPA executive committee members Brian Dawkins, the Denver safety, and Jeff Saturday, the Colts center, as well as Jay Feely, Ben Leber, Charlie Batch, Chester Pitts, and Jake Scott.
This much is clear: The talks will continue into Wednesday, because sources on both sides confirmed that a mediation session has been scheduled for Wednesday morning, just before NFL owners convene a two-day league meeting at a hotel in nearby Chantilly, Va.
"We want the fans to know that we're trying,'' Pash said earlier Tuesday. "We're trying. We understand our responsibility, and if we don't get it done, we know that we'll have let them down. And we take that very seriously. So do our players.''
At least one of those players in attendance, veteran Seattle guard Chester Pitts, emerged from the CBA mediation session Tuesday and said he was "cautiously optimistic'' about the direction of the talks.
Asked to assess the tone of the meeting, Pitts said: "It's two groups doing business. The tone, none of that matters. It's business. That's the approach. That's the expectation. We're steadily continuing to work. Both parties are at it and full steam ahead. We're doing all we can to come to an agreement. The fans should know that both parties are hammering away at it, and really trying to get a deal done.''