When the various owners, players and lawyers emerged from the first day of federal mediation last week, suits pressed and smiles forced, there was an air of possibility. It's spring, after all, even outside of a Minnesota courthouse. It looked hopeful ... on the surface.
Then the weekend came and the sobering weight of time kicked in. Several participants from both sides privately used a two-word expression to describe the first few days of mediation: déjà vu.
That's because, to some, it felt the same as mediation under George Cohen in Washington. Two entrenched sides, neither wanting to be there, both stalling for the inevitable court ruling to come but wanting to keep up appearances that they're trying to mediate a deal.
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Another city. Another mediator. Another day. Still the result of the NFL's owners and players talking seems headed towards the same direction in the end: no deal.
That at least seems to be the feeling after brief telephone and text message interviews with people familiar with the talks. Indeed, there is one thing that both owners and players seem to agree on and that is the chances of mediation succeeding are about the same as David Hasselhoff winning a Grammy.
While the mediation venue has changed the motivations of the players and owners haven't. It's as simple as this. Both sides think they can win in court, and neither wants to do anything in mediation that might damage their chances. Thus mediation now is a song and dance, ritualistic, done to satisfy Judge Susan Nelson and football fans eager for both sides to reach a compromise.
The owners and players want to appear like they're trying but privately they're ready to head to court because the gap in differences is too wide to navigate. Or mediate.
The players think Nelson will ultimately rule for them and end the lockout. The owners think if Nelson does side with the players, the owners can appeal to the more conservative higher court and get Nelson overturned. Then everything would begin at square one.
If the players think they can win in court, there's no reason to take mediation seriously. If the owners think they can win in appeals court, there's no reason for them to take mediation seriously. So, here we are. Neither taking mediation seriously.
Things could change in an instant. It's early. This is true. Both sides could miraculously soften their stance but it seems a second round of mediation isn't going to be much different from the first.
Pessimism remains the word most used after the first rounds of talks. The phrase low expectations has also been used. In effect, despite the hammer of a federal system hanging over the mediation talks, little thus far has changed.
Neither side has given up anything. Compromise is a four-letter word. Talks go on without even a hint of success on the horizon.
They'll keep plugging away. You'll keep seeing those images of owners and players entering and leaving court. Plenty of smiles. Plenty of hope. They'll say all the right things knowing that, for now, it's all a show. It's the warm-up act for the main drama to come later this month when Nelson takes the case.
Mediation is a ruse but they'll keep going through the motions and we'll all keep our fingers crossed looking for signs, any signs, the owners and players can reach an agreement.
Just hold that breath at your own peril.