In a development that indicates good news for all sides, the NFL owners and players have agreed to extend negotiations 24 hours beyond the previous end of the league year, which was to be 11:59 p.m. ET Thursday.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith made a very brief statement as he left the talks. "For all of our fans who dig our game -- we appreciate your patience as we work through this. We're gonna keep working, and we want to play football."
Both sides had been in negotiations for many days under the eye of federal mediator George Cohen, and according to several reports, the owners began Thursday's negotiations by putting a very favorable offer on the table -- an offer that apparently took the players aback and set the tone for positive discussions going forward. Most likely, the 24-hour window means that there will be further extensions and discussions as opposed to an automatic stalemate.
Several elements led to a more conciliatory tone from both sides. First, there was the ruling from Judge David Doty, reversing the previous ruling by Special Master Stephen Burbank that the owners were allowed to use the $4 billion in television money due them whether a season was played or not. Doty reversed the Burbank ruling with very specific language as to the nature of the NFL's dealings with several networks, including DIRECTV. And he was able to better understand the concept of "good faith."
And he very clearly stated that the owners did not act in the best interest of the players when they basically left money on the table, or extended current agreements without the opportunity to gain additional revenue, in exchange for loopholes allowing free money to go to the owners.
In addition to the loss of that revenue, the threat of decertification by the union was (and still is) a reality. The NFLPA must de-certify before the now-extended end of the league year, or it will lose its most effective weapon, because the CBA says that the union cannot de-certify for a period of six months after a lockout. They would also lose Doty as the arbiter of the de-certification case, which would throw their strategy into a series of legal uncertainties.
If Doty were to take the case before the end of the league year, he retains it no matter how long it goes. And this is where the decertification and subsequent antitrust suit becomes so very important -- if there is an antitrust suit, whoever the judge is would most likely rule that the two sides must keep their business going through the litigation process.
Decertification, and the loss of the subsequent lawsuit from the union, became much more of a threat when Doty ruled that the owners violated their fiduciary duty to the players by exchanging digital rights fees for lockout insurance, essentially proving that they sold the players short in exchange for money to find a lockout they had been planning all along. Once caught by a jurist with actual legal sense, the owners were in a real pickle, and they knew it. Now subject to all sorts of exposure and derision, and without the money budgeted to get them through a protracted labor battle, the owners had to take a different tone.
A longer extension allows for a few things. The owners can go back, take a breath, decide where they stand at this point, and allow the players to discuss the counter-offer now received. Most likely, the two sides are still too far apart on the primary issues to wrap everything up in the next 24 hours, but the fact that the two sides didn't just go back to their corners and declare war is the most encouraging sign we've seen in this process for a very long time.