WASHINGTON – Negotiations to prevent an NFL lockout took a grim turn Thursday with the cancellation of the second day of a planned two-day bargaining session.
"We wish we were negotiating today," NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah said. "That's all I can say."
There are just three weeks to go before the collective bargaining agreement expires on March 3.
The NFL confirmed that Commissioner Roger Goodell has canceled an owners' meeting scheduled for next Tuesday in Philadelphia, where labor was expected to be a topic.
"Despite the inaccurate characterizations of (Wednesday's) meeting, out of respect to the collective bargaining process and our negotiating partner, we are going to continue to conduct negotiations with the union in private," league spokesman Greg Aiello told The Associated Press via e-mail, "and not engage in a point-counterpoint on the specifics of either side's proposals or the meeting process. Instead, we will work as hard as possible to reach a fair agreement by March 4. We are fully focused on that goal."
The collapse of the talks came as a surprise. The two sides got together Wednesday for the second time in five days, the previous negotiations taking place in Dallas on Saturday before the Super Bowl. Neither Atallah nor NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith would comment on why Thursday's session was called off.
The union sent a memo Thursday to player agents updating the status of discussions on a rookie wage scale. A union proposal to decrease the maximum length of rookie contracts to four years for players selected in the first three rounds, and three years for players chosen after that, also included a limit on financial incentives and salary escalators that could be included in rookie deals.
Those limits would, the NFLPA claims, provide the cost certainty the league is seeking for its rookie salary pool.
According to the memo seen by The Associated Press, the NFL's response was a five-year wage scale with base salary escalators. That would virtually eliminate individual negotiation of rookie contracts.
Owners opted out of the current CBA in 2008 and are seeking a bigger cut of the league's revenues, which are roughly $9 billion, as well as the rookie wage scale. They also want to increase the regular season by two games to 18, while dropping two preseason games.
The players are happy with the status quo.
The NFL has had labor peace since a 1987 players' strike that led to three games with replacement players, but some sort of labor stoppage appears a genuine possibility this year because of the slow pace of negotiations. The talks at the Super Bowl were the first formal discussions since November.
Meanwhile, the NFLPA continued to present its side of the argument to the public. The union was a guest of American Rights at Work, which brought in a beer vendor from Ford Field in Detroit as part of a news conference in the nation's capital aimed at demonstrating the effects a lockout would have on the economy.
"Football and other major sporting events are some of the only things that bring people to downtown Detroit after 5 p.m.," said John Marler, who has worked at the stadium since 2007.
Kimberly Freeman Brown, executive director of American Rights at Work, said the NFL and union are fussing over many of the same issues faced by many workers: pay cuts, longer working hours, workplace safety and health care. She said a lockout would have an impact on 150,000 jobs and cause more than $160 million in lost revenue in every city with an NFL team. She called a potential work stoppage "something that could potentially have devastating consequences on our quality of life and our mental health."
"For many fans, football is just that deep to us," Brown said.
Atallah defended the union's public relations tactics.
"It is important for us to stand with the people who are here on this panel, not for any publicity issue or publicity stunt," Atallah said. "This is real life for us. This is a reality that these people face."
Smith arrived during the news conference, but stayed in the back of the room and did not answer questions.