- Associated Press - Friday, March 11, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and union head DeMaurice Smith have arrived at the federal mediator’s office on the day the league’s labor contract is set to expire.

Goodell was joined Friday by nine of the 10 members of the owners’ labor committee, along with various league executives and lawyers.

Smith walked over from the union’s nearby headquarters with about 20 people, including New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and several other current or former players.

Friday is the 16th day of federally mediated negotiations, which began Feb. 18. The collective bargaining agreement originally was scheduled to run out last week, but the deadline was extended twice.

While another extension is possible, the sides remain far apart on how to divide $9 billion in annual revenues. Their contentious public rhetoric Thursday night made it sound as if the NFL could be heading to its first work stoppage since 1987.

On Thursday, the union complained that none of the owners met with any of the players on hand.

“Everyone knows where the calendar is,” lead NFL negotiator Jeff Pash said Thursday night. “Everyone knows what’s potentially on the table tomorrow.”

If talks break off it could lead to a lockout by owners or decertification by the union, followed by antitrust lawsuits by players — actions that could threaten the 2011 season.

“Things can come together quickly,” Pash said. “Things can fall apart quickly,”

Even though there were small-group talks between NFL and union representatives Thursday, no one gave any indication that there was movement on the key issues. Indeed, the loudest words came in the evening, sparked by comments from Pash.

“I’ve said it many times: If both sides have an equal commitment to getting this deal done, it will get done,” he said. “I don’t know if both sides have an equal commitment. … Obviously, we have the commitment.”

When that was relayed to NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah, he responded with an e-mail to The Associated Press that said: “Jeff Pash was part of an executive team that sold the networks a $4 billion ticket to a game they knew wouldn’t be played. The only thing they’ve been committed to is a lockout.”

That is a reference to a court ruling last week, when the federal judge overseeing NFL labor matters sided with players in their case accusing owners of improperly negotiating TV deals to prepare for a work stoppage.

Smith then went back to the mediator’s office to respond to Pash’s statement himself.

“We have been committed to this process. But for anyone to stand and turn to the American people and say they question that?” Smith said. “Look, I understand that there’s probably some things Jeff Pash just has to say, but this is the truth: We know that as early as March of 2009 … the National Football League engaged in a strategy to get $4 billion of television money … even if the games weren’t played.”

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