- Associated Press - Friday, March 4, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) - A reprieve, even for one day, provided a touch of optimism in the NFL’s labor dispute with the players’ union.

Nobody, though, should get comfortable.

The NFL and the players’ union decided Thursday to keep the current collective bargaining agreement in place for an additional 24 hours so that negotiations can continue.

“We’re continuing to talk. I don’t see how that can be a negative,” said Jeff Pash, the league’s lead negotiator.

“For all our fans who dig our game, we appreciate your patience as we work through this,” union executive director DeMaurice Smith said as he emerged from the talks. “We are going to keep working. We want to play football.”

Allowing the CBA to expire could put the two sides on the road to a year without football, even though opening kickoff of the 2011 season is still six months away. The labor unrest comes as the NFL is at the height of its popularity, breaking records for TV ratings: This year’s Super Bowl was the most-watched program in U.S. history.

If the CBA expires, the owners could lock out the players, and the union could decertify to try and prevent that through the courts _ something the NFLPA did in 1989. It formed again in 1993.

For now, at least, the talks continue.

A person with knowledge of the talks said the 24-hour extension was to gauge the willingness to extend negotiations further. The person, who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because the talks were supposed to remain confidential, said the sides were apart on economics, but have agreed on other topics. The person would not say what the two sides do agree on.

Another person familiar with the negotiations said the two sides were not expected to resume face-to-face bargaining Friday. Instead they’ll meet separately with Cohen to hash out whether to prolong the extension _ and if so, for how many days.

“We had a long day. I think it was a day full of hard work, a lot of good discussion and exchanges,” Pash said.

Asked how much progress was made, Pash said: “You can’t measure it like that. … It’s not like a stock that you could chart on an hour-by-hour basis. There are a lot of issues, it’s complicated. People are working hard, and I think we’re just going to have to keep at it.”

They were at it for about eight hours with federal mediator George Cohen. The CBA was set to expire at midnight as Thursday became Friday, which would likely have prompted the first work stoppage since 1987 for a league that rakes in $9 billion a year.

Said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as he left: “We are working as hard as we can.”

Washington Redskins player representative Vonnie Holliday cautioned that the two sides are “still apart” on a pact to replace the current CBA. “I don’t see how we can be that close right now unless somebody is going to pull a rabbit out of the hat,” he said. “I just don’t see it.”

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