Talks between NFL owners and players resumed in secret this week, including discussions of a settlement, providing a small measure of progress as the sides head into a critical court hearing Friday.
The settlement discussions led the judge overseeing mediation to cancel sessions scheduled for Monday and Tuesday -- possibly indicating that the recent discussions without lawyers proved productive. Talk is a good thing for anyone who wants to see the NFL get back to normal business, but no one yet knows just how much progress has been made and whether these discussions will lead to a deal. Both sides have kept quiet.
This week's meetings, which began Tuesday and continued Wednesday and Thursday, according to multiple reports, included NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, along with several player representatives, a selection of NFL owners and federal Judge Arthur Boylan, who has overseen mediation since the dispute's first court hearing in Minnesota.
After the discussions, Boylan canceled the upcoming mediation sessions, writing that "the Court has been engaged in confidential settlement discussions" involving the league and players.
Talk of a "settlement" is the first glimpse of a potential end to the lockout since it began nearly three months ago.
"The parties met pursuant to court mediation. Owners and players were engaged in confidential discussions before Chief Magistrate Judge Boylan. The court has ordered continued confidentiality of the mediation sessions," the league and players said in a joint statement.
The Chicago Tribune first reported the talks. No Eagles representatives were at the talks near Chicago.
The point of the meeting, one player told the Tribune, was "no lawyers."
Since the lockout began March 11, most of the action has revolved around legal maneuvering. Friday's hearing before a three judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals will be the most crucial yet. It will help determine whether an injunction to lift the lockout takes effect, giving the players a major win, or is thrown out, which would allow the owners to continue the work stoppage for the foreseeable future.
The ruling, expected late in June or in early July, is widely expected to go in the owners' favor, possibly solidifying their leverage, but both sides also have some reasons to try to reach a deal before the court decides.
For the owners, reaching a deal now would eliminate the uncertainty and risk that the players score an upset in this round of court and get the lockout lifted.
Players, likely facing a court ruling that could leave the lockout in place and threaten their fall paychecks, have incentive to deal before the court decides and hands the owners a firm win.
"Settlement" discussions could represent a concession to the players. If the sides settle the players' anti-trust case, it would leave the resulting labor deal under court supervision, which players want and owners had hoped to end. A traditional collective bargaining agreement, on the other hand, would remove the courts from the equation. The owners have pressed for a typical CBA, like other major sports have.