WASHINGTON -- Taking the level of face to face negotiations to a different level, the NFL's top labor bargaining committee showed up en masse in downtown Washington Wednesday morning to meet with the NFLPA and the federal mediator who is trying to broker a new collective bargaining agreement between the two parties.
The owners' 10-member labor committee -- the management council's executive committee, or CEC -- entered the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service office of George Cohen 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.''
Talks ended after about four hours Wednesday, before the owners' contingent got into a fleet of a half-dozen black SUVs to drive to a hotel about 25 miles away in Chantilly, where the 32 team owners were gathering.
About 20 minutes later, the NFL Players Association negotiating group left on foot, walking in the direction of the union's headquarters, a couple of blocks away from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Union president Kevin Mawae and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, a member of the NFLPA executive committee, attended the mediation for the first time.
With mediation expected to resume Thursday, one source said the talks went "better than expected."
In addition to Richardson and Bowlen, other CEC members/owners present were Dallas' Jerry Jones, New England's Robert Kraft, Giants co-owner John Mara, Kansas City's Clark Hunt, Pittsburgh's Art Rooney, 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.
"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 two sides are expected to continue their meeting today until early afternoon, and then a good bit of the NFL ownership in attendance -- as well as league commissioner Roger Goodell -- are expected to head west to Chantilly for the start of an expected two-day owners meeting.