The NFL and its players completed three straight days of not-so-secret talks Thursday. Now they head to an appeals court in St. Louis for a ruling that could prove pivotal in the nearly three-month lockout.
Don’t read too much, though, into the term “confidential settlement discussions” used by the court-appointed mediator.
Commissioner Roger Goodell and several owners were joined by NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith and a group of players before U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan. Both sides issued statements saying they would honor the court-ordered confidentiality agreement. Boylan then canceled mediation sessions scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in Minneapolis.
A person with knowledge of the talks cautioned that the term “settlement negotiations” doesn’t necessarily mean an agreement is near.
The meetings this week were Boylan’s way to continue the court-ordered mediation in a different setting and in a different manner. The person, speaking on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press because of the judge’s confidentiality order, said the cancellation of next week’s sessions was simply a way to keep the process as private as possible.
More likely than any continued mediation with Boylan would be similar secret meetings between the league and players, who have been locked out by owners since March 12.
In the past, the clandestine approach has been a step toward successful negotiations between the league and NFLPA. Such meetings between former union executive director Gene Upshaw and former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue often led to progress on a new collective bargaining agreement.
The talks in a Chicago suburb began Tuesday and carried into Wednesday and Thursday before concluding at midday.
Another person familiar with the talks said various issues were discussed, but “to characterize it as progress might not be accurate.”
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and New York Giants owner John Mara were among those on hand. Not all the 32 team owners were made aware of the meetings before they began. Jones said it simply was good to be talking again.
“Both sides understand there needs to be a timetable toward getting an agreement,” one of the people with knowledge of the talks said. “There’s hope this will speed up that timetable.”
The hearing in St. Louis on the NFL’s appeal of a ruling blocking its lockout begins Friday. Lifting the lockout was delayed by an appeals panel until the full appeal could be heard. Goodell, Smith and several owners are expected to be in court Friday.
But the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is not expected to rule on the legality of the lockout for weeks. So a resumption of talks in the interim could speed a deal.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said last week he believed some decisions on opening training camps in late July needed to be made by July 4.