WASHINGTON – Locked in a multibillion-dollar staredown, the NFL and the players' union headed toward the final day of their expiring collective bargaining agreement with no word of significant progress and the increasing likelihood of moves that eventually could threaten the 2011 season.
The sides were scheduled to resume federal mediation Thursday morning. The current labor deal runs out at midnight Eastern time as Thursday becomes Friday, and among the possibilities are that the union decertifies sometime before that deadline; the deadline could be extended; or owners could decide to lock out the players, something the union has expected all along.
Depending on which of those occurs, the country's most popular sport might wind up losing regular-season games to a work stoppage for the first time since 1987. That probably seems unthinkable to football fans who buy tickets and propel TV ratings, helping the NFL become an industry with annual revenues topping $9 billion.
Two people with knowledge of the NFL Players Association's plans told The Associated Press the union was prepared to decertify Thursday, barring a last-minute breakthrough. That action means the union no longer would represent the players, who would be giving up their rights under labor law and instead take their chances in court under antitrust law. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because the union had not made its plans public.
There was a flurry of activity Wednesday: a four-hour mediation session attended by all 10 members of the owners' labor committee, union president Kevin Mawae and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees; a three-hour owners meeting at a hotel 25 miles away in Chantilly, Va.; the cancellation of another planned gathering of owners Thursday; and a private visit with mediator George Cohen starting at 8 p.m. by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, two top league lawyers, New York Giants owner John Mara and Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy.
Mara — the first owner to attend the nine days of mediation, on Tuesday — and Murphy left at 9:30 p.m., followed shortly by Goodell, lead NFL labor negotiator Jeff Pash and outside counsel Bob Batterman.
"Long day," Mara said.
Asked the purpose of the 1½-hour evening meeting with Cohen, Pash said: "To speak with the mediator and get some direction."
Nearly 12 hours earlier, when he, Goodell and other members of the NFL's team arrived for Wednesday's bargaining session, Pash reiterated that the league and union could agree to push back the deadline for arriving at a new CBA.
"We have to see where we are. We've said that's an option. We're not taking anything off the table," Pash said.
Owners did not take any action during their afternoon session in Chantilly, and most said they were headed out of town — including some, such as Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots, who were at Wednesday's mediation.
The owners are not required to take a lockout vote; that authority has been given to their labor committee, which met separately for an hour.
"We can't comment, and even more so, we're certainly still involved in our dialogue, and so there is no comment," Jones said.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jimmy Irsay said the owners welcomed the opportunity to be updated on negotiations, but there was little reason for them to remain in Washington as the deadline approaches.
"We had the chance to ask questions, but we didn't break with a lockout vote or anything like that," Irsay said.
Asked what he expected to happen heading toward the CBA's expiration, he added: "I never have expectations, except to have A, B, C, D and E, and to always plan for F. It changes. A chessboard that moves around and things happen at unusual hours."
Labor committee members who attended the talks Wednesday were: Mara, Murphy, Kraft, Jones, Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers, Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Brown of Cincinnati Bengals, Clark Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs, Dean Spanos of the San Diego Chargers, and Pat Bowlen of the Denver Broncos.
Brees, a member of the NFLPA executive committee, and Mawae hadn't attended this round of mediated negotiations, which began Feb. 18. But now all members of the union's executive committee have been present at least once.
"We're talking," Mawae said when he left. "It's better than not talking."
Because Cohen told both sides to stay silent publicly about the current talks, no one has revealed any specifics about what progress might have been made.
The biggest sticking point all along has been how to divide the league's revenues, including what cut team owners should get up front to help cover certain costs, such as stadium construction. Under the old deal, owners received about $1 billion off the top. They entered these negotiations seeking to add another $1 billion to that.
Among the other significant topics: a rookie wage scale; the owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; and benefits for retired players.
Cohen said last week that the sides were far apart on the core issues.
By the end of Thursday, more will be known about exactly how far apart.
"I don't want to put any certainty on what this evening might bring or tomorrow might bring," Irsay said Wednesday. "It's really, truly hard to predict. These things change."
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner and Sports Writer Joseph White in Chantilly, Va., Larry Lage in Detroit and Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia contributed to this report.