WASHINGTON -- Progress seems to be in the eye of beholder in the case of the NFL's ongoing labor negotiations, but the mere fact they still are ongoing registers as reason enough to have hope as this long week of mediation sessions between the owners and players comes to a close.
Make no mistake, the NFL's 2011 season and labor peace are clearly far from being assured. Serious differences remain when it comes to the core issues that separate the two parties. But having both sides step back from the precipices that Thursday and Friday's deadlines represented is the kind of incremental progress that could lead to further progress.
So, it's a one-week extension of the CBA today, and suddenly it's not quite so unfathomable to imagine the players and owners finding a way to strike the long-term agreement that really matters by next week at this time.
"I've repeated it over and over again,'' said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, shortly after the announcement of a second temporary CBA extension in the past 24 hours. "This is going to get resolved through negotiations. Not from litigation. So talking is better than litigating.''
And that's about the line that seems safest to toe right now. Somewhere between optimism and realism. The two sides aren't there yet, but they're also not staring at the chasm they were at the start of Thursday's mediation session in downtown Washington, when a large ticking clock might as well have been a required prop in the offices of federal mediator George H. Cohen. Compared to that dire backdrop, getting another seven days to build on whatever progress was made feels like a breakthrough -- even if it really doesn't quite measure up to such an encouraging word.
Still, some positive signs, while subtle, are starting to emerge. NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash spoke of "trying to compromise'' for the first time in recent memory on Friday. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith talked of "looking forward to a deal coming out of'' next week's new round of negotiations. The rhetoric level has dropped considerably, and the tone of the talks has turned to the serious, the substantial and just maybe the art of the possible.
After months of unavoidable posturing, both Goodell and Smith suddenly seem to understand that the path of litigation and lockout wasn't one they wanted to go down until they absolutely have to. And for another week at least, they don't.
Deadlines, of course, always act as smelling salts in a negotiation like this. But there were other factors that conspired to get owners and players to continue talking next week. First and foremost, the players won some much-needed leverage when federal judge David Doty ruled on Tuesday that the league violated the CBA by negotiating TV network contracts that would pay off even in the event of a lockout in 2011.
Doty also notably (and some would say deftly) left open the possibility of assessing future damages against the owners for their CBA violation, raising the potential financial stakes even higher than the $4-billion-plus the NFL might not be able to access during the course of a work stoppage.
Secondly, multiple sources have said that both Goodell and Smith seemed to recognize the full weight of the moment that came with the most important two days of their now high-profile careers, and both rose to the occasion in trying to find ways to bridge the differences that can be bridged, and put off until later the issues that still divide.
Has there been progress on narrowing the major issue of how to deal with the additional $1 billion of revenue-pool giveback that the owners are seeking? A small amount, but the two sides are still believed to be hundreds of million dollars apart. Has there been any give from the players on the league's insistence that Judge Doty no longer have sole jurisdiction over all CBA matters, with the NFL likely even willing to accept a smaller revenue percentage in exchange for being free of Doty's consistently pro-NFLPA rulings? Perhaps, but it's not an issue that sounds resolved in any real sense.
What we do have is two sides who are listening to each other, exchanging ideas rather than just making speeches and being led through the mediation process with the skilled and helpful touch of Cohen, who sources say has made both owners and players feel heard and understood. That's not in and of itself enough to make the parties strike an agreement, but it has paved the way for the first real back-and-forth negotiation of this long and highly anticipated standoff.
A week to get where the NFL and its players still need to go isn't a long time. But a week is better than a day or two, and look how much ground the two sides have already covered compared to the scorched earth they occupied before the 11 days of mediation began. To be sure, the progress made hasn't been spectacular. But it has been plentiful enough to get everyone back to the table next week, where the talking will commence once more.
Goodell is right about that much. Talking is better than litigating. For at least another week, the NFL and its union can still afford the former, with the hope that it staves off the latter.