NFL, union extend deadline to solve differences

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Buying time to try to close big gaps on big issues, the NFL and the players' union agreed Friday to extend the deadline for negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement by a week.

The current labor deal had been set to run out Thursday night. But the sides used an initial 24-hour extension to discuss and vote on the second, lengthier delay. Now the league and union will take a break over the weekend to assess their positions, resume mediation Monday, then have until the end of next Friday to talk.

"We're obviously having a lot of dialogue," Commissioner Roger Goodell said Friday, the 11th day that he and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith have spent time at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. "We met for a lot of days. And we are going to meet for more."

Although the seven-day extension is the first true signal that owners and players might avoid a protracted legal skirmish and work stoppage, it's clear they are not close to a new CBA.

"It's a challenge," NFL general counsel and lead labor negotiator Jeff Pash said. "We've got very serious issues. We've got significant differences."

Most significant: money.

One person with knowledge of the negotiations told The Associated Press that the NFLPA has not agreed to any major economic concessions - and that the NFL has not agreed to the union's long-held demand that the league completely open its books and share all financial information.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because mediator George Cohen asked everyone involved not to comment publicly on the substance of the talks.

No one would say whether yet another extension would be possible if no new deal is reached by next Friday.

While Goodell and Pash declined to discuss any details as they spoke to reporters outside Cohen's office at about 3 p.m., Smith did the same on a sidewalk in front of the NFLPA's headquarters about three city blocks away.

Referring to next week's round of bargaining, Smith said: "We look forward to a deal coming out of that."

But when asked whether trust between the sides has been rebuilt, Smith replied: "When you say something about 'trust' or when you raise issues about things like 'confidence' - none of those things are repaired quickly."

If the sides hadn't extended the CBA, the union was prepared to decertify Thursday, meaning it no longer would represent the players, who would be giving up their rights under labor law and instead take their chances in court under antitrust law. The NFLPA took that course in 1989.

The owners, meanwhile, could have locked out the players, raising the specter of games lost to a work stoppage for the first time since the players' strike in 1987.

"This is going to get resolved through negotiations, not through litigation," Goodell said. "So talking is better than litigating."

That willingness to continue meeting with the mediator certainly indicates neither side was ready to make the drastic move of shutting down a league that rakes in $9 billion a year and is more popular than ever. The last two Super Bowls rank No. 1 and No. 2 among most-watched TV programs in U.S. history.

Cohen said that since he began mediating talks Feb. 18, he has been able to encourage the sides "to fully, frankly and candidly talk to each other" and that they are having "constructive discussion."

The key issues all along have been:

- How to divide revenues, including what cut team owners should get up front to help cover costs such as stadium construction and improvement. Under the old deal, owners received about $1 billion off the top. They entered these negotiations seeking to add another $1 billion to that.

- A rookie wage scale, and where money saved by teams under that system would go.

- The owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games.

- Benefits for retired players.

Under terms of the seven-day extension, no player transactions will be allowed while it is in effect, and players' health insurance coverage will remain in place.

"There's been enough serious discussion to warrant both sides taking this step," Pash said after the extension was announced. He also said he wouldn't be surprised if team owners participated in mediation next week, a step that could indicate discussions were reaching a critical stage.

"It's time for us really to dig - to dig deep - and try to find solutions," Pash added, "and try to be creative and try to compromise in a way that will work for everybody."

Goodell dismissed the notion that the NFL became more willing to negotiate after Tuesday's decision by U.S. District Court judge David Doty that sided with the union in a case about whether the league can have access to about $4 billion from TV contracts. The union accused the NFL of improperly negotiating deals to have money available in event of a lockout, and Doty - who has jurisdiction over NFL labor matters under the old CBA - agreed.

Asked whether there is any truth to the idea that Doty's decision got the league back to the table, Goodell said: "No. We've been at the table."

And they'll be there next week.

Noted Goodell: "The fact that we're continuing this dialogue is a positive sign."


AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner and AP Sports Writer Joseph White in Washington, and Sports Writer Dave Skretta in New York contributed to this story.


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