NFL, Players Recess as They Near Economic Lockout Issues Deal

NFL Super Bowl XLV
Mewelde Moore #21 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs the ball against Pat Lee #22 of the Green Bay Packers during Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas. Photographer: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Negotiators for National Football League owners and players are close to agreeing on how to divide a projected $9.3 billion in revenue, two weeks before training camps are scheduled to open, according to two people with knowledge of the talks.

The sides have worked on an agreement that may give players just less than half of the league’s revenue, according to the people. Players got about 60 percent under the old agreement, after owners deducted $1 billion for such costs as the NFL Network.

“We’re gonna break for the weekend and get back to work next week,” said DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, after talks recessed yesterday in New York. “We continue to work hard to get something done. I know our fans want us to get something done as quickly as possible.”

Completing a new collective bargaining agreement next week may help the U.S.’s most popular sport avoid missing one or more rounds of preseason games, which NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says are worth about $200 million in revenue each week. Owners locked out players four months ago, and yesterday, a federal appeals court upheld the lockout, saying a lower court had erred in blocking the action.

Giants’ Move Camp

The New York Giants also said yesterday that they would hold training camp in East Rutherford, New Jersey, near their stadium rather than in Albany, New York, where it has been held since 1996. The team said questions over the status of the contract talks prompted it to make the decision.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Smith rejoined negotiations this week after lawyers for both sides worked on language for a new deal, said the people, who were granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the talks.

Aiello and players association spokesman Carl Francis declined to comment on what was being discussed in New York.

The league and union are focusing on the chief economic issues before addressing topics such as health care and terms of free agency, the people said.

Judge’s Error

NFL owners in March locked out players, who sued in federal court claiming wage-fixing and antitrust violations. A St. Louis-based appeals court yesterday ruled 2-1 that U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in St. Paul, Minnesota, erred when she ordered the teams to grant players access to their training facilities and staff.

Her injunction, which was stayed by the appeals court in May, didn’t comply with federal labor law, according to yesterday’s ruling. Players claimed in a lawsuit that the NFL violates antitrust laws with anti-competitive practices. The league countered that the dispute is governed by the National Labor Relations Board and the court lacked jurisdiction to issue the injunction. The judges agreed.

“The labor dispute did not suddenly disappear just because the players elected to pursue the dispute through antitrust litigation rather than collective bargaining,” U.S. Circuit Judge Steven Colloton wrote in the majority opinion.

Players led by quarterbacks Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning sued the NFL on March 11 after negotiations on a collective-bargaining agreement collapsed and the athletes dissolved their union. The lockout followed at midnight.

Resolution Through Negotiation

Nelson issued an order to stop the lockout on April 25. The league won a temporary appeals court ruling on May 16 allowing the owners to reimpose the ban until judges decided on the lockout order. They did that yesterday, without dismissing the case entirely.

The two sides issued a joint statement on yesterday’s court decision, saying the dispute “must be resolved through negotiation.”

“We are committed to our current discussions and reaching a fair agreement that will benefit all parties for years to come, and allow for a full 2011 season,” the owners and players said in the statement.

The labor dispute came after a season that produced record television ratings, drawing a total of 207.7 million viewers, according to Neilsen Co. data. It was capped by the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which attracted the largest U.S. television audience in history.

Jeff Pash, the NFL’s chief negotiator, said after a league meeting outside Chicago last month that reopening for business will require making sure legal documents are fully drafted and approved, then ratified by both sides. Owners and players will also have to seek approval from “various courts” to deal with litigation.

Pash said he didn’t know how long that may take. Once the two sides reach a handshake agreement, both owners and players will want to “move as quickly as we could,” he said.

Training camps for the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears are scheduled to open July 22, with the teams slated to play the first preseason game on Aug. 7 in Canton, Ohio.

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