MINNEAPOLIS – With the lockout at one month and counting, attorneys for NFL players sat down Tuesday with the federal magistrate who will oversee court-ordered mediation with the league later this week.
Attorneys and Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller met with U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan for about four hours.
Boylan "was very open" and "it was a very constructive session," said Michael Hausfeld, the lead attorney representing Eller and a group of mostly retired players in their antitrust lawsuit against the owners. Other attorneys declined comment.
The meeting came on the same day the NFL released its 2011 preseason schedule, led by the Hall of Fame Game between Chicago and St. Louis in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 7.
Whether the games are held remains an open question. The NFL's attorneys are scheduled to meet with Boylan on Wednesday before mediation begins on Thursday, the first talks since collective bargaining negotiations broke down March 11, followed hours later by the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987.
Boylan has a reputation as a problem-solver, though what he can accomplish after more than two weeks of mediated talks fell short last month in Washington remains to be seen. He has been a magistrate since 1996 and presided over numerous mediations, including a $195 million settlement between Boston Scientific and about 4,000 claims involving heart defibrillators and pacemakers made by Guidant Corp. in 2007.
He'll need to be at his best in this session because the rancor between the two sides has grown increasingly bitter as the dispute landed in court.
"If the parties would rather take their shot for litigation, you could make them sit there forever and there still won't be an outcome," said Seth Borden, a labor law expert at McKenna, Long and Aldridge in New York.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson ordered the mediation on Monday. Nelson is still considering an injunction request from the players to lift the lockout imposed by owners after the players dissolved their union, clearing the way for the court fight. Players including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning filed the injunction request in federal court here along with a class-action antitrust suit against the league.
Retirees, including Eller, filed their own lawsuit, and the cases have been consolidated.
"What happened today in mediation was for the mediator to become more knowledgeable about positions of the Brady plaintiffs and the Eller plaintiffs and understand their overlap and their positions on respective issues," Hausfeld said.
Nelson has ordered both sides to keep mediation details confidential, urging both sides to get "back to the table." The NFL said it wanted to resume talks with federal mediator George Cohen in Washington following 16 days of unsuccessful collective bargaining negotiations, but the players wanted to hold any mediation under Nelson's auspices.
Nelson's decision on the injunction could swing leverage in the case one way or the other, so it is unclear how eager either party will be to enter into serious settlement discussions pending her ruling.
"Both parties are going to go into this (mediation) balancing what they might be able to accomplish through direct negotiations against the prospect of getting something worse than that possibly if the judge is going to rule," Borden said.