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Mediation resumes in NFL, players dispute

POSTED: April 14, 2011 11:55 a.m.

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The NFL and its locked-out players have resumed mediation.

Commissioner Roger Goodell, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft were in the league contingent that arrived at the federal court house in Minneapolis on Thursday.

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith was joined by lawyers, free-agent linebackers Ben Leber and Mike Vrabel, as well as Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller.

This is the first meeting between the two sides since March 11, when the old collective bargaining agreement expired, the union dissolved and the lockout began.

Thirty-three days after the NFL and the players cut off negotiations and put the 2011 season in peril, U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan began mediating Thursday's session.

League officials, led by executive vice president Jeff Pash, met with Boylan for about five hours Wednesday. Lawyers for the players met with Boylan for about four hours Tuesday.

Mediation is considered the first positive step in this process since the union was dissolved last month, the CBA expired and the NFL wound up with its first work stoppage since the 1987 strike.

The lockout followed 16 days of negotiations overseen by a federal mediator in Washington, with the league and players failing to agree on how to divide more than $9 billion in annual revenue.

The owners initially wanted to double the money they get off the top for expenses from about $1 billion to about $2 billion, but that number decreased during the last round of mediation. The players have insisted on full financial disclosure from all 32 teams, and so far the league has not opened the books to their liking.

Other major issues included benefits for retired players and the NFL's desire to stretch the regular season from 16 to 18 games. The NFL also wants to cut almost 60 percent of guaranteed pay for first-round draft picks, lock them in for five years and divert the savings to veterans' salaries and benefits.

More than $525 million went to first-rounders in guaranteed payments in 2010. The league wants to decrease that figure by $300 million, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. The NFLPA had no immediate comment.

Boylan has a reputation as a problem-solver, but his work is cut out for him.

The key for Boylan is to make both sides comfortable with his neutrality and fairness, said Robert Berliner, an attorney who runs the Berliner Group mediation service in Chicago. He said the judge also has to prove he knows the subject and is flexible. Persuasiveness is a must, too.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who ordered the mediation, is still considering a request from the players to lift the lockout imposed by the owners. After an April 6 hearing, she said she planned to rule on the injunction request in a couple of weeks.

Players including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning filed the request along with a class-action antitrust suit against the league. The lawsuit has been combined with two other similar claims from retirees, former players and rookies-to-be.

For now, at least the two sides will be talking again — even though it's under a court order.

"Whether they'll make progress, it's really hard to tell," Berliner said. "I'd like to think so because I'm firmly a believer that parties are way better off deciding these issues for themselves than having courts decide them."

___

AP Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York contributed to this report.

 

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