Owners, NFLPA hold secret negotiating sessions in Chicago

It turns out that the little day trip taken by NFL owners Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft and Jerry Richardson on Wednesday, which was first revealed by Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, was a bit more important than it first appeared. ESPN's Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen reported on Thursday morning that not only were those three owners and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell there, but that NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith and various union officials were in attendance for what is now referred to as a secret negotiating session. 

It's also been reported that Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney and John Mara were in attendance, along with player reps Kevin Mawae, Mike Vrabel and Jeff Saturday. To add to the intrigue, Mark Maske of the Washington Post reports that mediator Arthur Boylan was a part of the session, and that the talks started Tuesday night and continued through midday Thursday.

After Thursday talks broke off, the two sides issued a joint statement: "The parties met pursuant to court mediation. Owners and players were engaged in confidential discussions before Chief Magistrate Judge Boylan. The court has ordered continued confidentiality of the mediation sessions."

According to Schefter, the meeting was such a secret, some owners weren't even aware of it until after the fact. 

The reasons to negotiate are clear. With the next round of hearings in the Brady v. NFL antitrust lawsuit starting on Friday before the Eighth Circuit Court in St. Louis, both sides stand to lose a lot. If the owners win the next round, as they won the continuation of their lockout in the last hearing before that same court, the players and NFLPA lose everything but time as their leverage. If the players win, the court could rule that the lockout be lifted, and the doomsday/chaos scenario the owners keep touting -- a new landscape in which players are signed without a CBA or any sort of unilateral rules in place -- could be a reality. 

And, with the court's broad jurisdiction, there could be a ruling that the lockout is illegal, but that it shouldn't be lifted at this time as a pressure point to further negotiations without putting undue burden on the NFL to either rush to sign free agents and draft picks, or face collusion charges should they appear unusually unwilling to do so. 

In its initial ruling on May 16, which overruled the lockout-lifting ruling previously made by Minnesota District Court Judge Susan Richard Nelson, the Eighth Circuit Court pointed to the "irreparable harm" suffered by the owners that was not previously considered, but under very specific parameters: 

We do not agree, however, with the district court's apparent view that the balance of the equities tilts heavily in favor of the Players. The district court gave little or no weight to the harm caused to the League by an injunction issued in the midst of an ongoing dispute over terms and conditions of employment. The court found irreparable harm to the Players because the lockout prevents free agents from negotiating contracts with any team, but gave no weight to harm that would be caused to the League by player transactions that would occur only with an injunction against the lockout. The court gave full weight to affidavit evidence submitted by the Players, although that proof was untested by cross-examination at a hearing. 

The district court's analysis was conducted without the benefit of knowledge that this appeal will be submitted for decision on a highly expedited schedule — a circumstance that should minimize harm to the Players during the off-season and allow the case to be resolved well before the scheduled beginning of the 2011 season. 

You should pay special attention to the last sentence in the second paragraph. Allowing the case to be resolved "well before the scheduled beginning of the 2011 season" appears to be a not-so-veiled threat to both sides that if there isn't progress by the next hearing, things could go a very different way.

The ruling allowing the lockout to continue was less a crushing win for the owners (after all, one judge dissented in a fairly vociferous fashion) and more a prevention of a scenario that could not be undone and would provide unfair advantage to one side — basically, if players were signed by teams without a new CBA and with a lawsuit still going, the players would have won without a specific ruling in their favor by virtue of law. It was a stopping tactic that could be just as easily lifted should the court deem that the owners used the ruling to cause a larger stalemate.

Now that both sides have the most information possible, and have apparently tried to bridge the gaps to some degree on their own, Friday's hearing becomes even more of a crucial step to the possible end of the labor dispute with enough time for a full season to be played.