Now up on players, NFL urges negotiation out of courts

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL is expected to address rules changes at Tuesday's league meetings, but it's not the launching of aggressive tacklers that's at issue; it's the launching of another season.

People want to know if and when we'll have pro football in 2011 and, if so, what it will like.

My guess is the owners want to know too, though they seem optimistic -- maybe even confident -- that something will happen.

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"We'll get a season, come on," New York Giants president and co-owner John Mara assured reporters Monday.

Mara is a member of the league's executive committee, which was briefed by its lawyers on the current lockout and on a motion for appeal that will be heard on June 3 by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals -- the same court that last week delivered the NFL a significant victory by ordering a permanent stay of an earlier injunction.

In that decision, the court's language seemed to signal to players that they have little chance to score a favorable decision next month -- with the three-judge panel all but telling them to seek a solution outside the court.

No doubt emboldened, NFL lawyers didn't waste an opportunity to reiterate that message Monday. They also understand they just gained a substantial advantage -- and now they're determined to use it. So they again called on players to return to meaningful negotiations, exerting the leverage that -- until last week -- they lacked.

"This is the time," said Jeff Pash, the NFL's general counsel. "It doesn't do us any good not to play. It doesn't do the players any good not to play."

Nobody contests that. But it's how the NFL gets back on the field that's the problem, and Pash and league attorneys make a persuasive argument that it's not through court decisions.

Once upon a time, it was easy to understand their position -- they almost never won in court. But now they have. In fact, now they scored a TKO. Yet the two sides are no closer to a resolution than they were on March 11, when federal mediation talks broke off, the NFL Players Association decertified and owners imposed a lockout.

In the meantime, each scored courtroom decisions -- but the NFL's victory last week was the most meaningful, with the federal appeals court not only keeping the lockout in place but tipping its hand where it goes next ... and it's not toward the players. That has some wondering where players will go next, and the NFL would like to offer a familiar solution.

"The only way we solve this," Pash said, "is by saying, 'OK, let's put this behind us. Let's put the litigation on hold, and let's solve our own problems.' Asking judges to solve our problem for us is never going to get a resolution. If I were a fan, I would be totally frustrated, and I totally get that. But I would also hope that everyone understands that their interests are best served by reaching an agreement and having a structure in place so we can play football in 2011.

"The process of litigation has tended to freeze people and made it difficult for discussions to be productive. I think Judge Boylan has tried [in a court-supervised mediation in Minneapolis], and that's been helpful in providing a forum for us to spend time with the players association and the individual attorneys representing the players. But it's artificial in the sense that it's all within the context of on-going court cases.

"So just when the players walked out in Washington in March and announced they were not acting as a union anymore and filed their lawsuit, everyone geared towards that. When's the hearing on the injunction? When will a decision on the injunction be issued? Then there was the stay. Then there was an appeal.

"So there has been a rolling series of court cases, and we're getting close to 90 days after the talks in Washington broke down, and where are we? Nothing has happened. There is no resolution. I think the answer is that litigation has frozen people. It's made it harder to have meaningful discussions, not easier. And that's why we need to get out of court and back together to work this out."

The message is nothing new, but this is: Pash all but dismissed the current mediation as an effective tool for a settlement. When he said it's "being conducted as an extension or a derivative of the court case," that is not an endorsement. It's another signal that the NFL wants players back at the negotiating table, where it believes the two have the best chance to gain a settlement.

That, of course, has been the league mantra from the beginning, only now something has changed -- and it's the playing field. It tilted toward the owners.

"Is there any reason to believe players are more receptive to your overtures now than they have been?" Pash was asked.

"Well," he said, "It's like many things in the fullness of time. You sorta hope. I haven't given up, and I'm not going to give up. Maybe six months from now, you all will be standing here and saying, 'Well, you're a dope. You kept saying things were going to get better.'

"It may be that I'll turn out to be wrong. But I'm going to continue to believe that smart people, people who have the most substantial incentives to reach an agreement and get the game back on the field, will figure out how to do it."

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