WASHINGTON -- You can't say the collective bargaining talks between the NFL's owners and players broke down on Thursday, because there were no discussions between the primary parties.
Although their respective attorneys and some players met, the owners did not sit down with the players or union officials.
"We were told we were going to be meeting with the owners at 4 o'clock," said George Atallah, the union's assistant executive director of external affairs. "It is now 6:15, and we just received word that the owners broke for dinner without any formal bargaining or negotiating sessions today between players and owners. We're disappointed. We were -- as we have been for the last two years -- prepared to negotiate. Instead, we were stuck here waiting. This is a $9 billion business. The players shouldn't have to be treated like this, and the fans shouldn't be kept waiting, either."
The league's collective bargaining agreement is set to expire Friday at 11:59 p.m. EST. There was hope the sides would lock themselves behind closed doors in hopes of bridging an $800 million annual gap in how revenues should be allocated between the owners and players, yet there was no movement despite all but one owner on the league's labor committee being in attendance.
"It's up to (federal mediator) George Cohen as to when the sides meet," said Greg Aiello, NFL senior vice president of public affairs. "He goes back and forth between the groups. When he thinks there's a reason to bring the sides together, he does so. We have to follow Mr. Cohen's lead. There were meetings with the union today. Our people were in the building from 9:30 a.m. ... If Mr. Cohen calls and says get back here tonight, we'll be there."
Cohen's decision not to bring the owners into the mix could be perceived as ominous for negotiations, which were extended twice last week. If the sides do not come to a deal before Friday afternoon, the players' association is expected to decertify its union and sue the league for antitrust violations -- if the owners lock out the players, as expected.
As if the day was not strange enough, verbal and Twitter sparring matches broke out after the sun went down. It started with NFL executive vice president of labor/league counsel Jeff Pash telling the media: "If both sides have an equal commitment to getting this deal done, it will get done. I don't know if both sides have an equal commitment."
Union executive director DeMaurice Smith, who was headed home, heard the comments and had his driver detour back to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service building, where the media were camped out. He wanted to reiterate the players' commitment to getting a deal done.
Smith also released a document obtained from the discovery process in the union's court case to block the league's access to $4 billion in television revenue during a lockout in 2011.
"(The document) talks about how they were going to go about securing television money for 'cash during a lockout,'" Smith said. "So with all due respect, when someone wants to stand up and say that he questions or doubts one party's commitment to the negotiation process, all I would ask is for all of you, everybody who has an obligation to the people who love this game and the players who dig this game, stick to the facts. ... We're going to be back here tomorrow because we want football to continue."
Later on, Atallah and Aiello faced off on Twitter.
Atallah: "I would like to request an expense credit from the owners on the last 3 hours of my life."
After that, during a session with the media, Atallah continued: "If owners continue to question players' commitment to negotiations, we're prepared to make public all our unanswered proposals."
That comment was tweeted by a reporter, prompting Aiello to respond: "That won't take long."
Aiello added: "While George is at it, ask him when is the union going to respond to our 150 pages of draft CBA provisions that they received eight days ago. Waiting."
Negotiations resume Friday, at which time the owners are expected to put an 18-game schedule on the table. Smith said Wednesday night during a fan event that the union will not sign off on an expanded regular season. He reiterated that later in the evening to SI.com, saying "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."