From mediated talks to arguments before an appeals court, the NFL's labor dispute has reached another critical stage.

The league and its players completed three straight days of not-so-secret negotiations Thursday, and now head for the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis for a hearing that could prove pivotal in the nearly three-month lockout.

The three-judge panel will ultimately decide whether the lockout should continue, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and union chief DeMaurice Smith, among others, are expected to be inside the courtroom on Friday.

Training camps, meanwhile, normally would open in about seven weeks, but this, of course, is no normal year for pro football.

Ben Leber, one of 10 plaintiffs on the still-pending antitrust lawsuit against the league, said the players haven't discussed a specific drop-dead date for reaching an agreement to ensure the on-time start of training camps. But he said it's necessary to have a date to reach a deal.

"Both sides have a day, whether they want to make it public or not," Leber said. "The biggest challenge is going to lie with whose day is going to come up first. Once it got to this point, I think it was just a good guess based on most corporate labor disputes that nothing was going to get done until the 11th hour. Now it depends on which 11th hour gets here first."

Goodell and owners Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft and John Mara were among those joined in a Chicago suburb by Smith and a group of players, including NFLPA president Kevin Mawae, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan. Both sides issued statements saying they would honor a court-ordered confidentiality agreement. Boylan then canceled mediation sessions scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in Minneapolis.

A person with knowledge of the talks told The Associated Press that the term "settlement negotiations" doesn't necessarily mean an agreement is near. The person, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the judge's confidentiality order, said canceling next week's sessions was simply a way to keep the process as private as possible.

More likely than another round of mediated talks with Boylan would be a similar secret meeting without him — between just the league and players, who have been locked out since March 12.

In the past, a clandestine approach has helped negotiations. Such meetings between former union executive director Gene Upshaw and former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue often led to progress on a new collective bargaining agreement.

The NFL was granted a delay in the execution of an injunction against the lockout in late April. Though Friday's hearing may not produce an immediate decision, one sports labor expert believes it will be expedited. With the scheduled start to the regular season barely three months away, there is an urgency to push forward.

"They know that they have to move fast. We all know that training camps open in mid-July," said Jay Krupin of the Washington-based firm EpsteinBeckerGreen. "I wouldn't be surprised if some of their clerks are already starting writing their opinion."

New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper said he hasn't heard specific drop-dead dates, but believes by the start of August, "something has to be etched in stone," as far a new agreement.

"It looks bleak right now, but I'm thinking that something has to get worked out because too many people will be affected negatively if it does not get worked out," Sharper said.

As for the last three days of meetings, Jones said it simply was good to be talking again, although not all the 32 team owners were made aware of the sessions beforehand.

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay has said he believed some decisions on opening training camps late next month needed to be made by July 4.


AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell in Minneapolis, Brett Martel in New Orleans, and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this story.