- Associated Press - Friday, February 18, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Two weeks before a potential lockout, the NFL and its players’ union are asking for help in their stalled negotiations.

Both sides agreed Thursday to mediation as they discuss a new collective bargaining agreement. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independent U.S. government agency, will oversee talks in Washington beginning Friday.

After holding separate discussions with representatives from the league and the union, FMCS director George H. Cohen said both sides agreed to have the agency mediate. Mediation is not binding.

“Any time that both sides of negotiations can get together, whether through conventional means of bargaining or mediation, to come to an agreement that can benefit all parties, it is a good thing,” NFLPA president Kevin Mawae told The Associated Press in an e-mail.

Negotiations broke down last week, leading to the cancellation of one planned session. The players are expecting the owners to lock them out if the CBA expires on March 3 without a new agreement.

“Due to the extreme sensitivity of these negotiations and consistent with the FMCS’s long-standing practice, the agency will refrain from any public comment concerning the future schedule and/or the status of those negotiations until further notice,” Cohen said.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told The Associated Press in an e-mail: “We are now in mediation.”

The league also switched an owners meeting from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 3, to Chantilly, Va., on March 2-3.

In a statement, NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said: “The NFLPA has always focused on a fair collective bargaining agreement through negotiations. We hope that this renewed effort, through mediation, will help the players and owners reach a successful deal.”

Cohen said in a statement that the negotiations will be conducted “under my auspices.” He is no stranger to sports mediation. He was involved in Major League Soccer talks with its players’ union and a work stoppage was avoided last year.

Cohen also has worked with the players’ associations for Major League Baseball, helping end the 1994-95 strike as a consulting attorney, and the NBA, and was an advisor to the NHL players’ union before joining the FMCS.

The FMCS website says it “provides free mediation services in contract negotiation disputes between employers and their unionized employees. All the parties have to do is make a request.”

The FMCS also became involved in negotiations during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, and a 2005 dispute between the U.S. Soccer Federation and its players.

“Our agency director will be working with the parties to assist them in reaching a voluntary, mutually acceptable agreement,” FMCS public affairs director John Arnold said in a telephone interview.

News of mediation could be a positive sign after several months of infrequent negotiations. It also comes only days after the NFL filed an unfair labor practice charge against the NFLPA with the National Labor Relations Board. Monday’s filing said the union “consistently has failed to confer in good faith” during negotiations for a new contract and the union’s “conduct amounts to surface bargaining and an anticipatory refusal to bargain.”

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