CHICAGO -- It is, as Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay said before Tuesday's meetings, "the season to make a deal." And so the NFL and its players should reach a labor agreement soon -- presumably, within the next few weeks -- that will save the season.
That is not a guess. It is a feeling, and it is a feeling of owners like Irsay who believe the lockout will be lifted in time to put teams in training camps and leave the preseason and regular season intact.
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"Our ownership continues to be determined to reach an agreement to make sure we play that full season," said commissioner Roger Goodell. "They're united. They believe that, in the best interests of the game, we need to correct various aspects of the collective bargaining agreement. But everyone is determined to get that done and still have the full 2011 season."
If there's news there it is this: That owners are united. That was an issue entering Tuesday's meetings, but it wasn't when owners dispersed five-and-a-half hours later. Initially, they were told to be prepared to stay overnight, with reports circulating that divisions among the membership might lead to a prolonged debate.
But that didn't happen. Owners and GMs here swore there were no rancorous discussions or divisions among clubs and that Goodell did not have to serve as a peacemaker. It was, they insisted, little more than an update on negotiations, with owners voicing their commitment to saving the season.
"It wasn't like there was a rumble that was expected in there," one insider told me. "But I didn't come here expecting that. It was more to bring us up to speed on what's going on."
What's going on is that substantial progress has been made the past three weeks in court-supervised negotiations between owners and players. In fact, there was so much that Irsay said he believed there could be a settlement "in a couple of weeks" -- or roughly around the July 4 deadline he mentioned last month as critical to keeping the season intact.
I'm not sure about the date, but I am sure owners believe something can happen by the middle of the month because I'm sure they're determined not to sacrifice games and the gazillions of dollars that go with them. What they're trying to figure out now is how to get there while gaining a collective bargaining agreement that is better for them than the 2006 agreement.
That won't be easy, not with July around the corner, which is one reason Goodell talked about an "urgency for everybody" to complete negotiations. But Goodell was hesitant to say more, bobbing and weaving when asked about his level of confidence, and consider that an encouraging sign. Neither Goodell nor league owners are interested in alienating players by making bold or rash statements now, not with talks moving forward.
There was a report that Goodell on Tuesday would reveal to owners details of a proposed agreement, one that had the league granting players 48 percent of revenues, not 60 percent as was the case last season, but without taking $1 billion off the top as it did in 2010. However, a source within the room said that no details were divulged, that no revenue splits were addressed and that while free agency was, it was done in general terms.
Revenue sharing, of course, is the core issue between players and owners, but one owner told me before Tuesday's meeting that he believed the two sides understood "there's no use in talking about victories," and that it was his understanding they seemed to have found a middle ground. If so, that is more than a start; it's the foundation for future negotiations -- no doubt continuing this week.
But it's when and where those talks end that determines when business resumes -- and by business I mean free agency. Goodell and lead counsel Jeff Pash made it clear that an agreement must be in place, with no unresolved items, before the league allows clubs to participate in free agency. In essence, that means a lag time between a handshake agreement and something formal, though it's unclear how much time would be involved.
"We would have to make sure the documents were fully drafted and approved," said Pash, "then both parties would have to ratify the agreement. We would have to do it, and the players would have to do it. There is some litigation that has to be dealt with, and so we would have to go before the various courts, and that would obviously (have to happen) on a quickened basis, as the court would hear us and have those lawsuits disposed of and resolved. Then we could open up.
"I think both sides know what the calendar is and understand the consequences of delay, so we would move expeditiously. And I'm confident they (players) would move expeditiously."
"And how soon would that be after a handshake agreement?" he was asked.
"I don't know," said Pash, "but you would want it to be soon. If both sides are going to commit to certain positions and clubs are going to be signing players, large sums of money are going to be changing hands and players are going to commit to multi-year agreements, you would want to have this confirmed -- not just in a general way but down to some fairly specific details. (Because the doors would be opened) you're not going to want to close them again for either side."
Makes sense to me. It also makes sense that talks are heating up. Look, we're approaching July, with the threat of sacrificing camps and preseason games more real. Neither side wants that. Then there's unfinished court business that is lurking out there. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule soon on the NFL's motion for appeal of an injunction that would lift the lockout, and the expectation is that it will favor the league. There's also a substantial damages judgment the players are expected to win in U.S. District Court, with the league expected to appeal to the Eighth Circuit. And we haven't even gotten to the anti-trust lawsuit that 10 players filed against the NFL.
I think you get the idea. There's good reason for both sides to reach an agreement ... and soon.
"I think it's a tremendous positive that the principals are talking," said Goodell, "that players and owners are talking to one another and negotiating. The objective here is to get something that works for everybody. It's not what everybody wants; it's what everybody needs to reach an agreement that is fair and balanced and is going to work to make our game better and continue to grow."