NFL heads toward work stoppage

WASHINGTON — NFL labour talks broke down just hours before the latest contract extension expired Friday.

WASHINGTON — NFL labour talks broke down just hours before the latest contract extension expired Friday. The union decertified and players, including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, sued the league, putting the country’s most popular sport on a path to its first work stoppage since 1987.

Despite 16 days of negotiations with a federal mediator — and previous months of stop-and-start bargaining — the sides could not agree on a new deal. The league said it hadn’t decided whether to lock out the players, who, meanwhile, went to court to request an injunction to block such a move.

“The parties have not achieved an overall agreement, nor have they been able to resolve the strongly held competing positions that separated them on core issues,” mediator George Cohen said. “No useful purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue the mediation process at this time.”

By dissolving and announcing it no longer represents the players in collective bargaining, the NFL Players Association cleared the way for class-action lawsuits against the NFL, which opted out of the CBA in 2008. The antitrust suit attacked the NFL’s policies on the draft, salary cap and free-agent restrictions such as franchise-player tags.

The CBA originally was due to expire last week, then was extended twice, in hopes that the sides could find common ground on the key issues: how to divide more than US$9 billion in annual revenues, and how much financial information the league would be willing to turn over.

In the end, it appeared the sides were about $185 million per year apart on how much money owners would get up front during the new collective bargaining agreement — well down from the $1 billion that separated them for so long. The union refused to budge any further without getting detailed financial information for each team.

“I would dare any one of you to pull out any economic indicator that would suggest that the National Football League is falling on hard times,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said. “The last 14 days, the National Football League has said, ’Trust us.’ But when it came time for verification, they told us it was none of our business.”

It all set the stage for a lengthy court fight that eventually could threaten the 2011 season for a league whose past two Super Bowls rank as the two most-watched programs in U.S. television history. The last time NFL games were lost to a work stoppage came when the players struck 24 years ago, leading to games with replacement players.

Even though the NFL is early in its off-season — and the regular season is six months away — this is hardly a complete down time. Free agency usually begins in March, and there are hundreds of free agents now in limbo. Also this month, under a regular schedule, off-season workouts would start, and the owners meet to establish rules changes.

Plus, March and early April are when many sponsors and corporate partners renew their deals with the NFL, part of why the league says hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue are going to be lost now.

“This obviously is a very disappointing day for all of us. I’ve been here for the better part of two weeks now, and essentially … the union’s position on the core economic issues has not changed one iota,” New York Giants owner John Mara said. “One thing that became painfully apparent to me during this period was that their objective was to go the litigation route.”

The NFLPA also decertified in 1989. Antitrust lawsuits by players led to a new CBA in 1993 that included free agency, and the union formed again that year.

The sides met from 10 a.m. until about 4 p.m. Friday, discussing a new proposal by the owners. When the possibility of another extension was raised, the union said it first wanted assurances it would get 10 years of audited financial information.

“I will tell you this: Any business where two partners don’t trust each other, any business where one party says, ’You need to do X, Y and Z because I told you,’ is a business that is not only not run well, it is a business that can never be as successful as it can be,” Smith said.

At 4:45 p.m., Smith and the union’s negotiators left. About 15 minutes later, the union decertified.

“No one is happy where we are now,” NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said. “I think we know where the commitment was. It was a commitment to litigate all along.”

A league statement added: “The union left a very good deal on the table.”

The public acrimony that arose Thursday night seeped into Friday.

After Pash spoke, outside union lawyer Jim Quinn said: “I hate to say this, but he has not told the truth to our players or our fans. He has, in a word, lied to them about what happened today and what’s happened over the last two weeks and the last two years.”

The NFL said its offer included splitting the difference in the dispute over how much money owners should be given off the top of the league’s revenues. Under the expiring CBA, the owners immediately got about $1 billion before dividing the remainder of revenues with the players; the owners entered negotiations seeking to roughly double that by getting an additional $1 billion up front.

But the owners reduced that eventually to about $650 million. Then, on Friday, they offered to drop that to about $325 million. Smith said the union offered during talks to give up $550 million over the first four years of a new agreement — or an average of $137.5 million.

“We worked hard,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who was joined at mediation on Thursday and Friday by nine of the 10 members of the owners’ powerful labour committee. “We didn’t reach an agreement, obviously. As you know, the union walked away from the mediation process.”

Also in the NFL’s offer, according to the league:

— Maintaining the 16 regular-season games and four pre-season games for at least two years, with any switch to 18 games down the road being negotiable.

— Instituting a rookie wage scale through which money saved would be paid to veterans and retired players.

— Creating new year-round health and safety rules.

— Establishing a fund for retired players, with $82 million contributed by the owners over the next two years.

— Financial disclosure of audited league and club profitability information that is not even shared with the NFL clubs. That was proposed by the NFL this week, and rejected by the union, which began insisting in May 2009 for a complete look at the books of all 32 clubs.

As Pash outlined each element of the owners’ last offer, he ended with the phrase: “Evidently not good enough.”

When Goodell, Pash, Mara and owners Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Jerry Richardson of the Panthers emerged from Cohen’s office shortly after 5 p.m., they sounded hopeful negotiations would soon resume.

“We’re discouraged, we’re frustrated, we’re disappointed, but we are not giving up. We know that this will be resolved in the negotiation process,” Pash said. “We will be prepared to come back here any time the union is ready to come back here.”

———

AP Sports Writer Joseph White in Washington, Associated Press Writer Amy Forliti in Minneapolis, and AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York contributed to this report.

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