WASHINGTON, D.C. - A member of the players' negotiating team says the union and the NFL have agreed to a 24-hour extension in labor talks.
Just hours before the end of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, due to expire at midnight on Thursday, NFLPA executive committee member Jeff Saturday said the two sides opted to continue discussions aimed at maintaining the labor peace that the NFL has enjoyed since 1987.
The league and players' union were meeting for a 10th day with mediator George Cohen.
Without a new CBA, the most popular sports league in America could lock out its players. The union also could decertify and have the players take their labor fight with the league to court.
The NFL has said in recent weeks it would not rule out pushing back the deadline if the parties were making progress in negotiations. Just before the Super Bowl, NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said: "If you're making progress, you can stop the clock. It's not a 'Thelma & Louise'-type situation, where you just go over the cliff."
Even President Barack Obama weighed in on the NFL's labor situation Thursday, when asked if he would intervene in the dispute.
"I'm a big football fan," Obama said, "but I also think that for an industry that's making $9 billion a year in revenue, they can figure out how to divide it up in a sensible way and be true to their fans, who are the ones who obviously allow for all the money that they're making. So my expectation and hope is that they will resolve it without me intervening, because it turns out I've got a lot of other stuff to do."
With the clock ticking down, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL's negotiating team arrived at a federal mediator's headquarters about 45 minutes ahead of NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and his group.
"We're working hard," Goodell said.
Also on hand for the NFL were Pash, outside counsel Bob Batterman, New York Giants owner John Mara, Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy, Washington Redskins general manager Bruce Allen and several other league executives. Mara and Murphy are members of the league's labor committee, which has the authority to call for a lockout if a new agreement isn't reached by midnight.
"We'll stay at it as long as it takes," Pash said.
The sides no longer have months or weeks or days to reach a new CBA. If they don't get it done now, the league could see its 2011 season jeopardized, the first time in nearly a quarter-century that games could be lost to a labor dispute.
Since the 1987 players' strike that shortened the season to 15 games — with three of those games featuring nonunion replacement players — there has been labor peace in the NFL. The foundation of the current CBA was reached in 1993 by then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and union chief Gene Upshaw. It has been extended five times as revenues soared, the league expanded to 32 profitable teams, and new stadiums were built across America to house them.
The contract extension reached in 2006 was the final major act for Tagliabue, who then retired, succeeded by Goodell. An opt-out clause for each side was included in that deal, and the owners exercised it in May 2008 — three months before Upshaw died.
Smith replaced Upshaw in March 2009.
Joining Smith at the mediation session Thursday were union president Kevin Mawae, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and about a dozen others, including current and former players.
The biggest sticking point all along has been how to divide the league's revenues, including what cut team owners should get up front to help cover certain costs, such as stadium construction. Under the old deal, owners received about $1 billion off the top. They entered these negotiations seeking to add another $1 billion to that.
Among the other significant topics: a rookie wage scale; the owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; and benefits for retired players.
Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., a former offensive lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles, said he was optimistic the two sides could reach an agreement without a stop in play.
"I don't think either of them benefit from having a true lockout. And quite frankly, that business doesn't hit the ground running until August anyway, so they have a long time to figure it out," Runyan said.
Asked about the midnight deadline, he predicted, "They'll probably push it back."