- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith met again Thursday, expanding talks on a pro football labor deal for the first time this week to include owners and players.

Sitting down with U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan at a Minneapolis law firm were a handful of owners _ John Mara of the New York Giants, Clark Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots _ and players including Jeff Saturday of the Indianapolis Colts, Brian Waters of the Kansas City Chiefs and Domonique Foxworth of the Baltimore Ravens.

Late in the afternoon, the NFLPA had a half-hour conference call to update players, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the labor talks are not being released, said “no big news” was announced but there was the same kind of optimism as last week when negotiations seemed to be making progress.

Another person familiar with the situation, also speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity, was less upbeat, characterizing the process as “two steps forward, one step back.” A deal was not imminent, the person said.

The two sides ordered in a late dinner and continued to meet Thursday night for more than 13 hours.

The latest round of talks aimed at ending the NFL’s longest work stoppage ever began on Tuesday, with just Goodell, Smith, their attorneys and staffs. The leaders of the two sides left the table to address incoming rookies an orientation symposium in Florida on Wednesday morning and then flew back to Minnesota.

The location is significant because Minneapolis is where the players have filed a still-pending federal antitrust suit against the owners. The two sides met here for six days of court-ordered mediation under Boylan in April and May.

The July 4 holiday weekend has been floated by some of the members of their respective parties as a rough target for a deal, and that time has nearly arrived.

Owners and players are seeking a deal that would divide revenues for the $9 billion business _ the biggest hurdle to clear _ and guide league activities for years to come.

John Hancock Jr., a labor law expert in Detroit for the firm Butzel Long who has closely followed the NFL situation, said he believes an agreement could be reached soon, perhaps early next week. He said one sign of progress was the smaller Tuesday meeting and the lack of details and updates being shared.

The recent cordiality between Smith and Goodell, at least in public, also is suggestive, he said.

“Both of them seemed relaxed,” Hancock said. “Both of them seemed amiable to one another. This did not look like two guys who are going to continue this strife much longer.”

The lockout began March 12 and the hope of everyone with a paycheck dependent on the NFL is that a new deal is struck soon. Training camps are scheduled to open in three weeks with the preseason-opening Hall of Fame game on Aug. 7.

Since players don’t get their regular paychecks until the regular season and revenue for the league revolves heavily around Sunday games, the financial urgency arguably hasn’t arrived.

Rookies need to start learning their playbooks, though, and teams need free agency to arrange their rosters. Plus, a 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel is still weighing a final decision the legality of the lockout.

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