Calling the players' offer "fair for both sides," star quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees — plaintiffs in an antitrust suit against the NFL — said Wednesday "it is time" to wrap up negotiations on a deal to end the league's lockout.
At the bargaining table, though, it wasn't that easy.
On the day Brady, Manning and Brees spoke as a group publicly for the first time, players and owners spent nearly 11 hours meeting at a Manhattan law office.
About two hours after players' association chief DeMaurice Smith left, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell walked out with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the league's lead negotiator Jeff Pash at 10 p.m.
Other owners including Pittsburgh's Art Rooney and Carolina's Jerry Richardson departed around then, too.
Negotiations were scheduled to resume Thursday morning. With each passing day, the need to strike a bargain and end the first NFL work stoppage since 1987 becomes greater.
Deadlines are coming up next week to get training camps and the preseason started on time. Although it seems the sides have agreed on the basic elements of how to split more than $9 billion in annual revenues, among the key sticking points recently have been how to structure a new rookie salary system and what free agency will look like.
In a statement released to The Associated Press via the NFL Players Association, New England's Brady, Indianapolis' Manning and New Orleans' Brees said: "We believe the overall proposal made by the players is fair for both sides and it is time to get this deal done."
They continued: "This is the time of year we as players turn our attention to the game on the field. We hope the owners feel the same way."
In response, the NFL issued a statement saying: "We share the view that now is the time to reach an agreement so we can all get back to football and a full 2011 season. We are working hard with the players' negotiating team every day to complete an agreement as soon as possible."
Brady, Manning and Brees are among 10 players who are named plaintiffs in an antitrust suit that is pending in federal court in Minnesota. That class-action lawsuit was filed March 11, hours after federally mediated negotiations to arrive at a new collective bargaining agreement broke down, and the old labor contract expired. The NFLPA immediately dissolved itself, meaning players no longer were protected under labor law but instead were allowed to take their chances under antitrust law.
On March 12, the owners imposed a lockout on the players, a right management has to shut down a business when a CBA expires. During the lockout, there can be no communication between the teams and current NFL players; no players — including those drafted in April — can be signed; teams won't pay for players' health insurance.
A series of court rulings followed, including one last week from an appeals court that said the lockout could continue.
Talks gained steam in May, overseen by a court-appointed mediator, U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, who is on vacation this week. Boylan ordered both sides to speak with him in Minneapolis next Tuesday, and the owners have a special meeting set for July 21 in Atlanta, where they could vote to ratify a new deal if one is reached.
That means there's intense pressure on Smith and Goodell to keep things moving in a positive direction. Disruptions to the planned preseason schedule would decrease the overall revenue pie.
In an added complication, a federal judge has set an Aug. 8 hearing for NFL retirees, who claimed Wednesday that the league and NFLPA "have conspired" to set low retiree benefit and pension payments in the negotiations. The retirees also say they have been illegally and intentionally excluded from the talks.
Smith and Goodell were joined at Wednesday's meeting by a half-dozen team owners: Jones, Rooney, Richardson, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots, John Mara of the New York Giants and Clark Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs.
On the players' side were Jeff Saturday of the Indianapolis Colts and Tyson Clabo of the Atlanta Falcons.