By Gene Cherry
SALVO, North Carolina (Reuters) - Mediation between the NFL and its locked-out players has been adjourned until May 16, representatives from both sides said on Wednesday after four days of talks.
"I think this was a valuable process," NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said on the NFL's website. "I don't think a single minute of it was a waste of time."
The ending of the latest round of mediation comes with a federal judge expected to rule soon, perhaps as early as this week, on a NFL players' request that could have a major impact on their labor dispute with league owners.
"Everyone believes it was helpful. That was what the judge wanted, so we follow what the judge wanted," said Jim Quinn, who is serving as the lead lawyer for the players because NFL Players Association outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler was away on a prior commitment.
The players, including high profile quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, are seeking an injunction to halt a league-imposed lockout now in its sixth week.
How Judge Susan Richard Nelson of Minnesota rules could be a significant bargaining chip for either the players or owners in their dispute, legal experts say.
But the judge's decision almost certainly would result in the other side appealing to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, thus lengthening the legal process of the dispute, dubbed as a row between billionaires and millionaires.
Speaking on conference call with New York Giants fans, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he had no feeling about which way the ruling might go or when it might happen.
"That is the judge's decision. She will make that ruling when she is prepared to do it," Goodell said on Wednesday. "At that point in time, we will all obviously respect the ruling and hopefully, we will get back to the point where we are negotiating."
Judge Nelson said on April 6 she would need a couple of weeks to make a decision on the request and Wednesday marked 14 days since her comment.
While both sides are hoping her ruling will favor them, the judge said after hearing arguments in the case, "it seems to me both sides are at risk."
Judge Nelson had ordered the mediation under federal magistrate Arthur Boylan in an attempt to push the parties toward resolving the dispute themselves.
Some progress has been made but much remains to be done, sources told the league-owned NFL Network.
Along with the injunction request, the players have filed an antitrust lawsuit against the owners. That, too, must be resolved.
Both sides also are awaiting a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on an owners' complaint against the since-decertified players union. A ruling favoring the owners could bring the sides back to the bargaining table, where talks broke down March 11.
Ultimately, the two sides must reach a new collective bargaining agreement and settle a major impasse of how to divide $9 billion in annual league revenue.
The league, meanwhile, is preparing for a return to the playing field by September's start of the regular season.
"We released the schedule yesterday and we're planning to start the season on time," declared Goodell. "We're planning on playing a full season and we're going to negotiate as hard as we can to get that done.
"You obviously have to be prepared if you're unsuccessful. But I don't like to focus on that. I like to focus on being successful.
(Editing by Julian Linden and Frank Pingue)