WASHINGTON -- Locked in a multibillion dollar staredown, the NFL and the players' union were expected to resume mediation Thursday morning, 15 hours before the current collective bargaining agreement expires.
The sides have met for nine days before federal mediator George Cohen, with no reports of significant progress. They talked for four hours Wednesday, before the NFL contingent departed to attend a meeting of the 32 teams' owners at a hotel 25 miles away in Chantilly, Va.
Wednesday evening, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, two members of the owners' labor committee and two top lawyers for the league returned to meet with Cohen at his office, with Goodell and the attorneys leaving last at 9:45 p.m.
The NFL Players Association was not present for that meeting.
The CBA runs out at midnight Eastern time as Thursday becomes Friday, and among the possibilities are that the owners lock out the players or that the union decertifies. Whatever happens this week could cause the country's most popular sport to lose regular-season games to a work stoppage for the first time since 1987. Or, perhaps, everything could be resolved by management and labor in an industry with annual revenues topping $9 billion.
NFL owners, who are not required to take a lockout vote, ended their special labor meeting Wednesday night without taking any action.
"The committee has not made any decision as to what will happen upon expiration of the current agreement if we don't have a new one by tomorrow night," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.
Thursday's owners session was canceled, and most owners, including the Patriots' Robert Kraft and the Cowboys' Jerry Jones, were headed for home.
"We can't comment, and even more so we're certainly still involved in our dialogue, and so there is no comment," Jones said.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jimmy Irsay said the owners welcomed the opportunity to be updated on negotiations, but there was little reason for them to remain in Washington as the deadline approaches.
"We had the chance to ask questions, but we didn't break with a lockout vote or anything like that," Irsay said.
Asked what he expected to happen heading toward the CBA's expiration, he added: "I never have expectations, except to have A, B, C, D and E, and to always plan for F. It changes, a chessboard that moves around and things happen at unusual hours."
Because mediator George Cohen told both sides to stay silent publicly about the current talks, no one has revealed any specifics about what progress might have been made.
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 got $1 billion off the top. They entered these negotiations seeking to double 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.
"The question is, you've got this $9 billion dollar pie, and it's just trying to figure out how to creatively divide up the pie," said Professor John Wendt of the University of St. Thomas' Department of Ethics and Business Law.
"It's a big industry, and there's a lot of money out there. If fans are upset about the players getting the money, just think of it, that dollar either goes to the NFL -- or the owners -- or it goes to the players. And in my opinion, I'd like to see as much of it as possible go to the players," said Pete Bercich, a former Vikings player, coach and current commentator for KFAN.
Earlier Wednesday, a large group of owners and players' union president Kevin Mawae participated in mediated contract talks for the first time. The ninth session at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service also included Goodell and all 10 members of the owners' labor committee and lasted about four hours.
Labor committee members who attended the talks Wednesday were: Kraft, Jones, Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers, Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, John Mara of the New York Giants, Mike Brown of Cincinnati Bengals, Clark Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs, Dean Spanos of the San Diego Chargers, Mark Murphy of the Green Bay Packers, and Pat Bowlen of the Denver Broncos.
After the day's early session, the NFL contingent got into a fleet of a half-dozen black SUVs and headed to Chantilly. Va., to fill in other owners on the status of the negotiations.
About 20 minutes after the league's group left at 2 p.m., the NFL Players Association's negotiators group departed on foot, walking in the direction of the union's headquarters, a couple of blocks away. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, a member of the NFLPA executive committee, attended the mediation; like Mawae, Brees hadn't attended this round of negotiations, which began Feb. 18. But now all members of the union's executive committee have been present at least once.
"We're talking," Mawae said when he left. "It's better than not talking."
NFL general counsel and lead labor negotiator Jeff Pash reiterated early Wednesday that it is possible that the league and union could agree to extend the deadline for arriving at a new CBA.
"We have to see where we are. We've said that's an option. We're not taking anything off the table," Pash said.
(Copyright 2011 by KARE and The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)