MINNEAPOLIS – Negotiators for the NFL and its locked-out players wrapped up a second day of court-ordered talks Friday with no signs of significant progress. They plan to sit down again next week.
The two sides left the federal courthouse in Minneapolis after about four hours of talks, following nine hours of meetings on Thursday. They will meet again Tuesday.
Hall of Famer Carl Eller, who is representing retired players in the antitrust lawsuit against the league, said he thinks the two sides are "moving forward" but the process "slowed a little bit" Friday.
"There is progress, but it wasn't like we're right around the corner," Eller said. "We could resolve it if we had met on the weekend, but maybe not."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, who is overseeing the sessions, assigned some weekend homework, according to Michael Hausfeld, an attorney for the players.
"The judge has asked us to provide answers to over a half-dozen questions that he's asked," Hausfeld said, declining to provide details. "There's a lot of work."
With the 2011 season in jeopardy, Boylan is overseeing this round of talks after 16 days of mediated sessions in Washington failed to secure a new labor pact.
"We need to have some productivity," Eller said. "We need to come out of here with something, and I think that there is a sense of realism on the judge's part. It's not just talk. Just getting together to talk is not productive."
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who ordered the mediation, is still considering a request from the players to lift the lockout imposed by the owners. After an April 6 hearing, she said she planned to rule on the injunction request in a couple of weeks — which would mean next week.
Players including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning filed the request along with a class-action antitrust suit against the league. The lawsuit has been combined with two other similar claims from retirees, former players and rookies-to-be, with Eller the lead plaintiff in that group.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, four team owners and several league executives and lawyers left the building without speaking to reporters. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, via e-mail, declined to comment.
DeMaurice Smith, the NFL Players Association executive director, also refused to talk. He left the courthouse with lawyers and linebackers Ben Leber and Mike Vrabel, two other plaintiffs in the antitrust suit filed March 11 when the last collective bargaining agreement expired, the union dissolved and the lockout began.
At least the mood appeared light.
Reporters staking out the closed-door session were greeted with smiles and goodbyes from negotiators and attorneys as they departed. In a packed elevator on the way down to the lobby, Smith needled Vrabel by deadpanning to media members inside, "All right, in all seriousness, Mike is going to have a statement. You ready?"
The NFL's first work stoppage since the 1987 strike, of course, is no joke for either side — especially for the fans who pay to sit in the seats at sparkling new stadiums, buy replica jerseys to show their support and watch out-of-market games on satellite television.
"I'm a fan, too," Eller said earlier this week. "We would like to ease their minds. We can't tell them the outcome, but we are very interested in having a football season."
That's one shared goal between the two sides. With the dispute now in court, public relations is a major part of the effort for each side — through press releases, links and comments on Twitter, and communicating directly to the public in the push to get the message out.
"We're going to make sure we have football, and more of it," Goodell said this week in a conference call with Cleveland Browns season-ticket holders.
Said Smith after the April 6 hearing in Nelson's court: "Keep rooting for the players, and keep rooting for football."
Spin and rhetoric has been intense at times from both corners, but Aiello said the league doesn't view this as a public relations battle with the players.
"Our job always is to keep fans informed," Aiello said. "That is what we're doing in this situation."
NFLPA spokesman George Atallah didn't return messages this week.
The players have a website, nfllockout.com, that highlights community outreach and charitable efforts by the players and includes talking points for their side.
The NFL website, nfllabor.com, is a similar version for the league. Lead negotiator Jeff Pash recently wrote an op-ed column in the Chicago Tribune, stressing concessions the NFL has made with a list of highlights of its latest offer before talks broke down.
Eller sounded optimistic, not only about the progress but the opportunity to represent his fellow retired players, who have pushed for better benefits and care from the league for years.
"We don't drive this. We need them both," said Eller, referring to the current players and the league owners. "Our needs hinge on both of them. It's not an either-or situation for us. ...
"What I want the retirees to understand is that we are carving a unique situation. ... We're at the table, and I think this is something that they ought to be able to rejoice at an early stage, because where we go from here, it's going to be a major move."