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Meetings open with labor issues still hovering

The biggest issue facing the NFL, the labor contract, won't be resolved in any meaningful way at the league meetings this week.

KAPALUA, Hawaii (March 20, 2005) -- The biggest issue facing the NFL, the labor contract, won't be resolved in any meaningful way at the league meetings this week.

Owners, team officials and coaches assembled with little on the day's agenda other than recovering from long trips from the mainland. Although some sessions were scheduled, the major business was to begin March 21 with Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's "state of the league" address.

Tagliabue is likely to discuss the major movement in talks with the NFL Players Association to extend the contract that expires in 2008. The key issue is expanding the pool for the salary cap -- and thus the pool from which the players get their money -- to include additional revenue sources teams previously have kept for themselves.

An agreement in principle to expand the pool has been reached, but the main unresolved point is what percentage will go to the players.

"When it comes down to it, it's still about money," said Harold Henderson, the NFL's executive vice president for labor relations. "There's still quite a way to go on that."

While there seems to be plenty of time to negotiate, union officials have suggested time is running short. If there is no extension by 2007, there will be no salary cap that year.

"If we don't get it done by the end of this season, there will be a sense of urgency," union executive director Gene Upshaw said last month.

The chances are it won't get to that.

After two strikes in the 1980s and an antitrust suit following the 1987 strike, the NFL has had labor peace since 1992, continually extending the contract before it was due to expire. But both sides have described this negotiation as the most difficult since then, in part because of the union's insistence on including additional revenue, and now because of differences over the percentage of that revenue.

Still, it is unlikely the NFL will get to 2007 without a deal.

That's in part because of the good relationship between Upshaw on one side and Tagliabue, Henderson and owners like Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney on the other. Rooney, while not currently on the league's bargaining committee, has always been called in to resolve labor issues, and league officials suggested this weekend that he would be again, if needed.

Labor will be discussed at these meetings and so will the prime-time television contract, still up in the air. CBS and Fox have renewed their AFC and NFC contracts for a total of $8 billion over six years. But ABC and ESPN are still haggling over the primetime packages and it's conceivable other networks could get involved.

The television deal expires after this year.

These meetings will mark the first time in almost two decades that instant replay is not an issue. It was renewed last season for five years. But there will be discussion about adding "down by contact" to plays covered by replay -- allowing review of plays even if the whistle has blown if a coach challenges whether a ball came loose before a player hit the ground.

Owners also will look at several player safety issues and discuss a possible alteration to pass interference penalties.

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