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Cautious Optimism From NFL Labor Talks

By Barry Willner, AP Pro Football Writer
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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell leaves a meeting between the league and the players union on March 3, 2011 in Washington, DC. The NFL and the players' union agreed to an extension of the current collective bargaining agreement. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell leaves a meeting between the league and the players union on March 3, 2011 in Washington, DC. The NFL and the players’ union agreed to an extension of the current collective bargaining agreement. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Use a 24-hour extension to get a longer reprieve.

That appeared to be the approach for the NFL and the players’ union Friday.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and several league executives arrived at the offices of federal mediator George Cohen in the morning, with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire at midnight. Both groups agreed to a 24-hour extension on Thursday, with another extension on the agenda.

Each side was expected to meet separately with Cohen before any negotiations would be held.

“If we can make the kind of progress that you needed to make to have a further extension, that’s where we’d be looking,” NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said before heading in to meet with Cohen.

“Hopefully, we can make some progress and keep this thing going. That’s obviously in everybody’s interest. It’s been our goal all along and we’re going to just keep at it.”

Goodell said, “We’re going back to work hard again,” but gave no indication what he expects to happen.

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.

Read: Patriots Brady, Mankins Ready To Testify

“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 talks Thursday that resulted in the one-day extension. “We are going to keep working. We want to play football.”

Clearly, nobody should get comfortable.

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. The previous No. 1 was the 2010 Super Bowl.

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.

Read: NFL Not Alone: NBA, NHL, MLB Face Labor Issues

Asked how much progress was made Thursday, 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 Thursday with 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.

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.”

Even President Barack Obama weighed in when asked if he would intervene in the dispute.

“I’m a big football fan,” Obama said, “but I also think that for an industry that’s making $9 billion a year in revenue, they can figure out how to divide it up in a sensible way and be true to their fans, who are the ones who obviously allow for all the money that they’re making. So my expectation and hope is that they will resolve it without me intervening, because it turns out I’ve got a lot of other stuff to do.”

On hand Friday morning was Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy, a member of the league’s labor committee, which has the authority to call for a lockout if a new agreement isn’t reached.

The biggest sticking point all along has been how to divide the league’s revenues, including what cut team owners should get up front to help cover certain costs, such as stadium construction.

Under the old deal, owners received about $1 billion off the top. They entered these negotiations seeking to add another $1 billion to that.

Among the other significant topics: a rookie wage scale; the owners’ push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; and benefits for retired players.

Since the 1987 players’ strike that shortened the season to 15 games — with three of those games featuring nonunion replacement players — there has been labor peace in the NFL. The foundation of the current CBA was reached in 1993 by then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and union chief Gene Upshaw. It has been extended five times as revenues soared, the league expanded to 32 profitable teams, and new stadiums were built across America to house them.

The contract extension reached in 2006 was the final major act for Tagliabue, who then retired, succeeded by Goodell. An opt-out clause for each side was included in that deal, and the owners exercised it in May 2008 — three months before Upshaw died.

Smith replaced Upshaw in March 2009.

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AP Pro Football Writer Howard Fendrich, AP Sports Writer Joseph White and AP Writer Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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