WASHINGTON – The NFL and its players' union acknowledged Thursday they have not held a large-group negotiating session since November — and there are no formal meetings scheduled to work toward a new collective bargaining agreement.
Thursday marked seven weeks until the current CBA is set to expire, and while the private talks are seemingly at a standstill, the public rhetoric is not.
"The negotiations are not proceeding very vigorously. No one's booking dates right now," Bob Batterman, an outside lawyer for the league, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.
"You need a serious negotiating partner to have a negotiation," added Batterman, a lawyer for the NHL when it lost its entire 2004-05 season to a lockout. "And what we've been getting back in terms of responses are not conducive to making a deal."
Batterman said the union's "strategy is not to expedite this, but to slow it down, so that they can file an antitrust lawsuit." That echoed his comments to The Washington Post a day earlier, when Batterman said: "This is a union waiting for a lockout to occur."
In response to that story, the union arranged a conference call for media on Thursday, and its general counsel, Richard Berthelsen, said: "Any suggestion that we want a lockout is coming from outer space."
"I can tell you one thing, being involved as long as I have been: The word 'lockout' was never even in the NFL's vocabulary until Mr. Batterman came aboard, and after he came aboard, the continuing theme has been 'lockout' from the owners' side of the table," Berthelsen said. "The continuing theme from our side of the table is that the players want to play."
Union spokesman George Atallah, meanwhile, referred to the NFL's "desperate attempt to point the finger back at us." The union long has said it believes the owners have been preparing for a lockout.
"Players want to play. So we're not doing anything until we're locked out by the owners. Everything we would have to do would be because owners put us in a situation to have to react," Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, a member of the union's executive committee, said on the conference call. "We are waiting on the owners."
Batterman insisted the owners would prefer not to lock out players.
"Nobody's looking for a lockout; we're looking for a deal. Is that deal going to require some concessions from the players? Yes ... because the balance has gotten out of whack. And the owners are going to make concessions, too," Batterman said.
"There are going to be compromises on both sides, and we're hoping to do it without the necessity of a lockout," he continued.
The current CBA went into effect for the 2006 season, but the owners exercised an opt-out clause in 2008 — ending the deal after this season — because, they said, they can't afford the current system. The players have offered to continue under the present agreement, saying the league is healthy, thanks to billions of dollars in TV deals, solid attendance and profitable marketing partnerships.
Here's what the two sides do agree on: They have been having smaller discussions on various issues, but the last formal bargaining meeting was shortly before Thanksgiving Day.
"We pushed two proposals across the table," union president Kevin Mawae said, "and are waiting for a response."
Berthelsen said one of the proposals was about rookie pay — an issue Commissioner Roger Goodell has made clear is key to the talks — but did not specify the other.
"We really haven't had any meaningful, substantive responses that are forthcoming," Berthelsen said. "We're hoping that will be the case after the owners' meeting next week."
Batterman, for his part, told the AP the union has not replied to the latest counterproposal from owners about some of the working conditions that would change — fewer offseason workouts, for example — if there is a switch from a 16- to an 18-game regular season, with two preseason games instead of four.
"They did not respond with another substantive proposal," Batterman said. "They just rejected ours and said, 'We're not interested.' So there's nothing more for us to be offering. They said, 'No,' so we're stopped dead on that."
He also said the league, during informal discussions, raised the possibility of trimming two preseason games without adding any regular-season games, an idea he called "16-and-2."
"We're not thinking of continuing the four preseason games, which our fans don't want us to continue. ... We haven't proposed (16-and-2) yet. We've said that the alternatives to us, if we don't do 18-and-2, would be 16-and-2, and we asked the union to consider if that's their preference," Batterman said.
Batterman and Berthelsen both emphasized there is behind-the-scenes back-and-forth taking place, even when there aren't formal talks — or updates from either side.
"I can assure you there's not a week that goes by that (union executive director DeMaurice Smith) doesn't meet with Roger, talk to Roger, have communication with Roger, about the obvious issues," Berthelsen said.
So even with the March 4 expiration of the old CBA approaching, and no formal bargaining scheduled, it's possible an agreement could be reached.
"There is enough time remaining. We've got about 50 days," Batterman said. "There is no question that a deal could be done — which is a different question than whether a deal will be done."