Labor agreement remains in limbo

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At 7:02 p.m. ET at an airport hotel here, after the league's owners voted 31-0 with one abstention (surprise -- the Raiders balked), the full roster of owners gave a standing ovation to Commissioner Roger Goodell and the negotiating team that got the deal done. But then USA Today reported the players were rejecting the deal, the union denied it, and SI's Jim Trotter reported union boss DeMaurice Smith emailed his executive board: "There is no agreement between the NFL and the players at this time."

That's the kind of day it was, a crazy one with more twists and turns than a Stieg Larsson novel. And it's not over yet.

That was apparent with the sending of an email from the union's veteran general counsel, Richard Berthelsen, to the board of player representatives late Thursday night. The tone in the email, obtained by and other media outlets, was harsh enough to suggest an agreement to end the labor war could be far away. He said the deal "would in my view violate federal labor laws ... [prohibiting] employers from coercing their employees into forming a union. Those laws prohibit employers from coercing their employees into forming a union, and could result in any Agreement reached through the procedure being declared null and void."

Berthesen went on to write the proposal gives the three days (next Wednesday through Friday) "to bargain any changes to the old CBA, with the new CBA becoming final on Saturday, July 30.

"If the NFL does not agree to the players' proposed changes," wrote Berthelsen, "the old CBA terms on benefits, discipline, safety, etc. will remain unchanged for another 10 years."

What struck one owners' source Thursday night as so incredible was the impression that was left in the owners' room three hours earlier -- that this was a deal the union would agree to, despite the fact that there would be hard feelings over issues lost on both sides. Goodell had spent the four months since players felt steamrolled during mediation in Washington to try to undo the bitterness players felt during those talks. And those efforts, seemingly, continued Thursday.

There were two long conversations between Smith and Goodell, an attempt to build a bridge that would result in a dual vote late in the day -- first by the owners here, next by the board of player representatives from the union offices in Washington -- resulting in a deal. The league, attempting to end a 132-day lockout of players and to stave off the first missed regular-season games in the league since 1987, then slam-dunked the ratification of a 10-year collective bargaining agreement with players.

"We have crafted a long-term agreement that is good for the game of football," Goodell said 20 minutes after the vote was taken. "We are anxious to get back to football. It is time to get back to football. That is what everybody here wants to do."

"It's been long, it's been at times very, very difficult," the chair of the league's labor committee, Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, said of the long negotiation period. "We are confident the players and the teams have arrived at a good place."

Unlike the last deal, there would be no opt-outs in this deal. If approved by the players, there would be no labor interruptions, should the players ratify the agreement, until at least the summer of 2021.

Cries of "Hallelujah" could be heard throughout the land. Then just plain crying could be heard.

Soon after the vote, player sources began saying they felt the deal had been shoved down their throats by the owners. Though the ownership side said every point had been discussed at length with the players, Smith, in the email Trotter saw, said otherwise. He wrote of the owners: "They apparently approved a supplemental revenue sharing proposal. Obviously, we have not been a part of those discussions. As you know ... issues that need to be collectively bargained remain open. Other issues such as workers compensation, economic issues and end of deal terms remain unresolved."

It sounded very much like the good-feeling balloon was bursting Thursday night, and the players ended their conference call without voting on the owners' proposal.

"I have no comment," said Dallas owner Jerry Jones, one of the last owners to leave the hotel.

How could he? The entire agreement was in limbo.

Owners gave the decertified union until Wednesday to recertify, or else the deal would be pulled. Apparently, the players won't need till Wednesday to decide. They didn't vote to kill it Thursday night -- FOX's Jay Glazer reported that was so -- but there obviously was significant opposition to it.

The rules the owners agreed to would have canceled the first preseason game of the years -- the Hall of Fame Game between St. Louis and Chicago Aug. 7 -- but kept the rest of the $800 million preseason intact. (That's how much revenue is generated by the preseason, a management source said.) If the players were to ratify the agreement, team facilities would open Saturday, undrafted rookies could be signed beginning Sunday at 2 p.m. ET, and the official league year would begin Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, with free-agency kicking off then.

In another win for the owners, NFL legal counsel Jeff Pash said there be would no judicial oversight of this collective bargaining agreement by the federal judiciary, as there was in the last CBA, when owners were angered by several decisions by a federal judge, David Doty. Now appeals would be made in the more traditional ways of sports leagues -- through independent special masters.

But then the monkey wrench got thrown in. The players had to recertify as a union to officially end the stalemate because the NFL can't institute important terms of the deal like a drug policy or disciplinary tenets without the players having a collective bargaining unit. That was part of the owners' vote -- that all unsigned players are free to sign with NFL teams, but with the proviso that if players do not approve the deal by Wednesday, the contracts wouldn't be valid.

A weekend of mayhem appears certain. That's the only certainty on the immediate horizon for the NFL.