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NFL wants players at table; League hopes to restart talks

NFL executive vice president and lead counsel Jeff Pash said the league wants the players to return to the negotiating table. But will his plea fall on deaf ears?

There has been little communication between the NFL and players since they failed to reach a new collective bargaining agreement after 16 days of federally mediated discussions ended on March 11. The NFL Players Association decertified as a union when the mediation ended and the owners responded by announcing they were locking out the players.

The players answered by filing a lawsuit in a Minnesota federal court, claiming the owners violated anti-trust laws by instituting a lockout. A hearing is scheduled for April 6 to determine whether the players' request for an injunction will be granted, which would end the lockout.

The legal maneuvering continued Monday with the NFL filing a 57-page brief in the same Minnesota court that defends the legality of its lockout while also arguing that the players union's decertification is not legitimate. That latter complaint is under consideration by the National Labor Relations Board. The players now operate as a trade association, which the NFL refuses to acknowledge.

"We don't accept the claim that the union has decertified," Pash said during a media briefing at the Roosevelt Hotel, the site of the league's annual spring meeting. "We don't believe that has in fact taken place. We believe it's a tactical move by the NFL Players Association."

Despite those accusations, Pash said the league is ready and willing to restart CBA talks whenever the players are ready. That may not occur until after the April 6 hearing, but the league feels the issues both sides have can only be resolved by meeting in a boardroom and not a courtroom.

"The critical thing is that our commitment is to negotiate," Pash said. "We are not going to solve this in litigation. All that's going to do is delay a solution. I think we made some real progress over the course of the mediation. Perhaps getting back into that setting would be a way to build on that process."

DeMaurice Smith, who served as the NFLPA's executive director before it decertified, sent a letter to the NFL on Monday that said the league can contact NFLPA class counsel since the now-defunct union can't legally represent itself as a bargaining unit. However, the NFL said it will negotiate with the trade association executive board only if the board says it's a union bargaining for its players.

Meanwhile, Kansas City Chiefs player representative Mike Vrabel and other players said recently they don't want to negotiate with Pash or NFL outside counsel Bob Batterman. The players prefer to meet directly with owners such as Dallas' Jerry Jones, New England's Robert Kraft and Carolina's Jerry Richardson.

"I think the point that Mike Vrabel made, even though it maybe wasn't too flattering to me, was a fair one," said Pash, who indicated some of those owners have been in past negotiating sessions. "The people who are writing the checks and the people who are cashing the checks should be at the table together. Let's have decision-makers at the table together."

The primary reason for the NFL's work stoppage is the amount of revenue going to the players.

The Associated Press reported Monday that players' share of incremental increases to all revenues under the NFL's expired contract was about 53 percent from 2006-09, based on calculations by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm that audited the old CBA for the owners and players union.

According to data prepared by PricewaterhouseCooper for 2010 at the request of the NFLPA, players received about $3.8 billion in salaries and benefits from the $7.2 billion in incremental revenue -- 52.9 percent -- over the four years the CBA existed, AP reported.

This information contradicts the NFL's repeated assertions that 70 percent of extra revenue went to players, not counting the $1 billion taken off the top for expenses like new stadiums.

"The concept is in the collective bargaining agreement we negotiated that total revenue is the basis on which the salary cap is calculated," Pash said in response to the report. "There is no dispute between us and the union that the players received 70 percent since we entered into the agreement [in 2006]. If you want to change the denominator, you can change the percentage."

The discrepancy in how the owners and players look at the revenues is a major reason the two sides haven't been able to reach an agreement. In the meantime, you have players who don't believe the owners are honest about their economic situation and the owners questioning the players' commitment to get a deal done.

But Pash believes the two sides can find common ground if they work together to solve the issues that divide them.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's not a trust issue," he said. "It's not a war, it's not a one side is good and the other side is bad. It's not a morality play. We have a business issue, we're going to resolve it and we're going to get back on the field.

"I believe the best days of the National Football League are ahead of us. The reason I believe that is because the men who play the game are an extraordinary group of individuals, and you can't look past that."

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The NFL usually gives us a taste of the upcoming regular-season schedule at the owners meetings by announcing some of the primetime games in the opening weekend, but that won't happen this week. The 2011 schedule is still expected to be released in mid-April.

The league also is breaking another spring meeting staple by holding off on announcing compensatory picks. Those picks, which are at the end of Rounds 3 through 7, are awarded to teams that have lost more qualifying free agents than they gained the previous year in free agency. Unlike regular draft picks, compensatories can't be traded.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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