By Gene Cherry
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - NFL players are hoping to be back on the training fields by the end of next month, a players association official said Wednesday.
Preseason training normally begins in July and although the players are still locked out because of the labor dispute, they remain hopeful a resolution can be reached.
"We don't have a firm sense of cutoff dates because we don't make the rules or set the schedule," players association spokesman George Atallah told Reuters.
"The players' hope is that the lockout is lifted in time for players to show up to camps on time."
Under the terms of the league-imposed lockout, now in its third month, players are barred from contact with their teams so dozens of players are working out on their own in locations across the country.
Some owners have hinted that a new collective bargaining agreement would be needed by July 4 for a full schedule of activities, including training camps and preseason games, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league had a range of contingency plans in case there was no agreement.
Cancellation of the preseason could cost the NFL an estimated $1 billion.
At the urging of federal judges, talks between owners and the players association have picked up steam in recent weeks in an attempt to settle the dispute, which is threatening America's most popular professional sport.
The latest talks are in the New York area after sessions last week in Chicago.
The meetings, attended by both owners and players representatives, were described as very serious by the league-owned NFL Network.
The league and the players association issued a joint statement on Wednesday, saying: "NFL owners and players have engaged in further confidential discussions before Chief Magistrate Judge Boylan. Those discussions will continue."
Goodell and NFL labor committee members Jerry Richardson (Carolina Panthers), Clark Hunt (Kansas City Chiefs), Robert Kraft (New England Patriots), John Mara (New York Giants) and Dean Spanos (San Diego Chargers) are representing the league at the meetings, the statement said.
Players association executive director DeMaurice Smith and president Kevin Mawae are attending along with players Jeff Saturday, Mike Vrabel, Tony Richardson and Domonique Foxworth.
While the talks continue, both sides await several major court decisions:
A federal judge in Minnesota has yet to rule if the players are owed damages in a case involving a $4 billion television contract owners negotiated. Judge David Doty ruled in March the NFL failed to maximize revenue in the deal, which the players claim gave the league a stockpile of cash to help it through the lockout.
The Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals is also considering the validity of a decision by a lower court judge to end the lockout, which the owners established on March 12 after bargaining talks broke off and the players association decertified itself as a union. Twice already the same panel of judges has ruled against ending the lockout.
Looming too is a September 12 hearing before a Minnesota federal judge on a class action lawsuit against the league by nine league players, including high-profile quarterback Tom Brady.
A ruling by the National Labor Relations Board on an unfair labor charge brought in February by league owners against the players association also is pending.
(Editing by Julian Linden/Mark Lamport-Stokes)