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Free agency adds urgency to talks

One factor contributing to the urgency to finish an NFL labor agreement quickly is both sides' desire for a free agent signing period long enough for teams to assemble their rosters and players to shop for suitable deals.

Hundreds of NFL players who could be eligible for free agency have been in limbo for nearly 3 1/2 months, leaving teams unable to complete personnel acquisitions for the 2011 season. Free agent signings and trades of players have been prohibited during the lockout, which began March 12. Teams also have been barred from signing the players they drafted in April and from signing undrafted rookies.

The result will be a mad scramble of signings and trades before training camps open. But that period won't begin until there is a formal, signed collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players, people familiar with the process said.

It could take a couple of weeks to turn a handshake deal between the league and the players into an officially-completed agreement.

The deal must be put into writing by attorneys. It must be approved by each side, and the ratification vote by the owners might require an in-person meeting. The players' approval process is more likely to take place via conference call. And the players may have to reconstitute their dissolved union as part of the new pact.

The deal also may require approval of the federal court in St. Paul, Minn., where the players filed an antitrust lawsuit against the owners March 11, but that's a little less clear.

It would be required if a deal between the league and players is completed as a settlement of the players' lawsuit. In that case, the two sides might have to craft language to satisfy the league's demand that the sport's labor situation no longer be subject to court oversight.

But the accord instead could be reached as a labor agreement, and the players could separately withdraw their lawsuit.

"There's a lot to be done," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday after the owners completed a one-day meeting in the Chicago area.

Talks between the NFL and locked-out players resumed Wednesday in the Boston area. The goal, it appears, is to begin free agency around July 15, giving teams time to add players before training camps open -- on time -- in late July or early August. But that might require an agreement in principle about July 1, the end of next week.

People familiar with the talks said an attempt will be made to finish a deal before the July 4 holiday, but because of the complexity of the issues, a pact might not come until the following week, they said.

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