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Back at it: NFL owners, players come together for crucial talks

NEW YORK --NFL owners and players arrived at a Manhattan law firm Thursday for a critical set of labor talks, with the possibility of cancelled preseason games becoming more real by the day.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith each came with five representatives of their constituency, as has been the case at many of these meetings.

Goodell was accompanied by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, New York Giants owner John Mara, Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II and Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, while Smith brought NFLPA president Kevin Mawae, former special-teams ace Sean Morey, Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth. U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan also re-joined the talks, but he has a vacation scheduled to begin Saturday.

These discussions are only scheduled to go through Friday, but there's the possibility of extending them into the weekend -- which would be a first in the six weeks of this phase of negotiations. So, the issue of Boylan potentially leaving talks over the weekend exists, but two sources said it doesn't make the next two days more vital, citing preseason revenue as the primary motivator to quickly finish a settlement.

Also, a Thursday night conference call has been scheduled for the plaintiffs in the Brady et al v. National Football League et al antitrust case. Settling that case ultimately would be part of ending the league-imposed lockout, which started March 12.

After paying tribute to Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, a former NFLPA president who passed away Thursday, Smith was asked on his way into the building if he's hopeful about the labor talks.

"I feel good," Smith responded.

Mawae was asked what he hoped to see accomplished in the talks and said, "Getting a little bit closer to getting a deal done, hopefully, we'll see.

"The closer we get to the kickoff of the regular season, the more important it becomes that the sides come together," Mawae added. "But again, from the players' standpoint, we have to get a deal that's fair for everybody. We're working hard."

Legal teams and staff from each party met Tuesday and Wednesday in Manhattan, and while progress was made, there's only so much that could be done without owners and players present.

Thursday is seen as a big day for a number of reasons.

First, there's the issue of timing, with July 15 largely seen as a deadline to settle a deal and save the preseason in full. Second, there's the need to carry over momentum from the marathon 16-hour session last Thursday and subsequent meeting Friday, after Boylan reined in the parties during a tough time and pushed negotiations forward. Third, there are many issues -- including the rookie salary system and funding of retiree benefits -- on which the parties still need to make breakthroughs, and these talks could be key to that after time away from the table.

It has been estimated that it would take between 10 and 14 days to go from an agreement to a signed document, and the idea of this week's meetings is to cut down that time and have groundwork laid to quickly move things from a settlement to the opening of training camps. The Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams, who are scheduled to play in the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame Game, are scheduled to report to camp July 22.

Saving the preseason would avert the possible loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. That loss would affect the owners' offer to the players and could poison negotiations to the point where the dispute would head back to the courts.

Two court rulings are pending -- one from U.S. Circuit Court Judge David Doty in the networks' rights-fees case and another from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the league's appeal of a lockout-lifting injunction.

Lawyers involved in negotiations believe rulings in the cases have been finalized but that neither Doty nor the 8th Circuit judges, who previously implored the league and players to work out their differences themselves, want to issue them. The failure of talks, this line of thinking goes, could lead Boylan to inform those courts that negotiations have broken down and there's no need to wait to reveal their rulings.

If that's indeed Boylan's hammer, he has used it effectively, prompting progress on the revenue split last week, the central issue in this entire dispute. In that time, many of the "fringe" demands -- deemed unacceptable by one side or the other -- fell off the table as well, clearing the way for more productive talks.

One remaining issue is retired players' benefits, one of the smaller issues that flows into the revenue split. The owners and players didn't settle the funding for such benefits late last week, and a group of retired players -- led by Carl Eller -- filed a lawsuit in a Minneapolis court Monday seeking to halt the ongoing negotiations and keep the active players from representing them in that setting.

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