MINNEAPOLIS — Three days and 20 total hours of court-ordered mediation between the NFL and its locked-out players have shown little signs that the two sides are making progress toward a settlement.
So owners and players are headed back for a fourth day of negotiations. The league and attorneys representing current, former and future players are scheduled to resume mediation on Wednesday, with the federal judge who ordered them back to the table expected to decide soon on the players' request to half the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987.
The two sides resumed their meetings on Tuesday after a three-day break, with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones seated at the table for the first time.
Some have questioned whether the two sides were committed to negotiating while awaiting U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson's ruling on the players' request to lift the lockout. Michael Hausfeld, the lead attorney for a group of retired players, said both sides are working hard to reach a settlement, as was Nelson's hope when she ordered the mediation on April 6.
"This is no charade. This is no illusion. This is going to come to a resolution either by the parties compromising or agreeing or by a judgment," Hausfeld said before the talks began. "And even with a judgment, many times there is then a discussion as to how to compromise the judgment so there is not a winner-take-all situation.
"This takes time. The court is doing everything within its power to get the parties to realize that."
Players including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning filed the request for the injunction along with the antitrust claim. The lawsuit has been combined with two other similar claims from retirees, former players and rookies-to-be, with Hall of Famer Carl Eller the lead plaintiff in that group.
Nelson said at the initial court hearing that she would take "a couple of weeks" to rule on the injunction request. Wednesday marks exactly two weeks from that statement, and the decision could significantly sway the leverage.
Jones joined Commissioner Roger Goodell, Packers CEO Mark Murphy, Falcons President Rich McKay and owners Pat Bowlen of Denver and Jerry Richardson of Carolina on the NFL side of the table on Tuesday.
Named plaintiffs Ben Leber, Mike Vrabel and Eller were there for the players on the same day the NFL released its regular season schedule for a 2011 year that is in jeopardy if the labor fight continues to drag on in the court system.
All declined comment at the end of the long day of negotiation. The two sides will meet again on Wednesday morning in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan.
Any decision Nelson makes, Hausfeld said, would certainly be appealed to the federal appellate court. That takes time — and there isn't a ton of that left.
"There's no question that any ruling Judge Nelson makes will be a first step," he said. "It will be taken on appeal."
Hausfeld said both sides seemed to understand the gravity of the situation.
"This is not talking about the fringes of what football should look like," he said. "It's at the core of what the sport needs to become."
Both sides sat in mediation for nearly seven hours on Tuesday, another sign they aren't taking this lightly.
As the day came to a close, Eller emerged from U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan's chambers and let out a big sigh.
"Tough day," he said.
And more tough ones to come, it appears. Hausfeld said that even if Nelson does issue a ruling on the injunction, the two sides could continue mediation. With the draft just around the corner, they would almost have to, he said.
"I hope everyone in the room, owners, active players, rookie representatives and retiree representatives, understand that this is a situation that not only involves their interests but the interests of many fans and other people who depend upon the game being played," Hausfeld said. "And if everyone seriously approaches the issues with the manner in which the court has, then hopefully progress can be made."