MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The day began with the NFL commissioner and the players’ association head starting another round of talks, this one set to run through Friday, aimed at ending a lockout that is now in its fourth month.
By sundown Tuesday, Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith were on a plane to Florida where they planned to speak to rookies Wednesday before heading back to Minneapolis to continue negotiations.
A signal that an end to the labor strife was in sight, perhaps even before the Fourth of July?
That was still to be determined, but with the traditional start of training camps just three weeks away, every move has taken on a heightened sense of importance.
And the obvious thaw in what had been an icy relationship between Goodell and Smith for months is one of the strongest indicators yet that a new collective bargaining agreement isn’t far off.
Spokesmen for the league and the players’ association confirmed that the two power brokers were on the same plane from Minnesota to address the NFLPA’s rookie symposium on Wednesday morning.
SI.com first reported that Goodell and Smith were on their way to the joint appearance. Smith, the union’s executive director, asked Goodell to speak to the group at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Sarasota, Fla., and the commissioner agreed.
Goodell is likely to explain the rookie wage scale that owners say must be a part of a new CBA.
The discussions between Goodell and Smith on Tuesday included no players or owners, according to several people familiar with the situation. They said the two sides planned to meet through Friday. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the negotiations were being kept private.
Such meetings have been a key to previous labor agreements, particularly when the late Gene Upshaw was running the players’ association and Paul Tagliabue was commissioner. Goodell and Smith did not seem to have each other’s trust until recently, when “secret meetings” began between the sides.
As for training camps, two teams have already opted to hold them at headquarters instead of offsite spots because of the labor uncertainty. Chicago and St. Louis are scheduled to play the annual Hall of Fame game on Aug. 7.
Detroit Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson said earlier Tuesday he believes there still isn’t enough urgency to reach a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement — not yet.
“From a business perspective, nobody is losing anything right now,” Jackson said at a youth sports camp in Walled Lake, Mich. “The owners haven’t had to pay offseason bonuses — so they’re making interest on the money they’re not spending — and most of the players aren’t used to getting paid until we start training camp in late July. Until then, I don’t think we’re missing much.”
The lockout began on March 12, and players have not been allowed to train at team facilities or contact their coaches, with the exception of a few days in April when the lockout was briefly lifted.
Players on several teams have practiced on their own, trying to keep in football shape so they’ll be prepared to get back to business on the field whenever the labor impasse ends.
A few Bills players are in Buffalo already working out. It’s a group that includes quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has traveled from his home in Arizona to spend time throwing with several of his receivers for the past few weeks.
Fitzpatrick didn’t have any inside information on how talks were progressing, but his presence in town was a sign of how eager he and his teammates are to get back to football. Bills receiver Stevie Johnson was so upbeat that he attended the Bills’ new uniform unveiling at Ralph Wilson Stadium last week, and posted some photos of himself with fans on his Twitter account.
The key issue in the dispute is how to divide revenues after the league took in about $9.3 billion last year. The rookie wage scale is a significant but secondary topic.
Previous “secret meetings” have taken place in suburban Chicago, New York, the Maryland shore and last week in Hull, Mass., south of Boston. The federal courts in Minneapolis are familiar ground for both sides, since the current collective bargaining system was put together under court oversight here and it’s where an antitrust lawsuit filed by players against the league is still pending.
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner and AP Sports Writers Larry Lage and John Wawrow contributed to this report.