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NFL, players' union to enter mediation in labor negotiations

Published: Thursday, February 17, 2011, 3:57 PM Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011, 6:17 PM

By Mike Garafolo/The Star-Ledger

Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL will return to the bargaining table Friday to restart negotiations with the NFLPA.

In an effort to break the ice in stalled negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement and perhaps have a more civil sit-down than recent meetings, the NFL and the NFL Players Association have agreed to mediation.

Don't get too excited. We said mediation, not arbitration.

The league and the union will meet with George H. Cohen, the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, on Friday in Washington, D.C. The meeting will take place exactly two weeks from the start of the 2011 league year, which is the expected beginning of a lockout if no new CBA is in place.

"I have had separate, informal discussions with the key representatives of the National Football League and the National Football League Players Association during the course of their negotiations for a successor collective bargaining agreement," Cohen said in a statement. "At the invitation of the FMCS, and with the agreement of both parties, the ongoing negotiations will now be conducted under my auspices."

Perhaps Cohen's presence will improve the tone of the negotiations, which reportedly have been contentious to the point a second session last week was canceled by the owners. Cohen has experience working with the unions of the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball and served as a mediator between MLS and the MLS Players Union last year.

Still, Cohen cannot impose settlements in the NFL's spat. He can only listen and work to improve the communication.

Which would certainly be an improvement to the current state of talks.

"The NFLPA has always focused on reaching a fair Collective Bargaining Agreement through negotiations," the union said in a statement today. "We hope that this renewed effort, through mediation, will help the players and owners reach a successful deal."

The sides remain far apart on many issues, including a potential rookie wage scale (and whether the deferred money in such a structure would be re-routed to the veterans), a proposed 18-game regular season, the owners' desire to withhold another $1 billion in revenue to cover unspecified expenses and — as it relates to that last point — the owners' unwillingness to open their financial books.

The distance between the sides in the negotiations has resulted in tensions during discussions, particularly the reports Panthers owner Jerry Richardson spoke in a condescending tone toward the Colts' Peyton Manning and the Saints' Drew Brees, though Brees indicated during a recent interview on Sirius XM's Mad Dog Radio those reports were a bit exaggerated.

"I wouldn't say that things were disrespectful," Brees said, "but what I would say is that there's are a lot of issues to get through and we're obviously not going to agree on everything and so it's a process and there are a lot of things to consider here."

There were also reports the NFLPA was discussing the possibility of a boycott of the scouting combine, which begins late next week. But indications are that was never a serious consideration and George Atallah, the union's assistant executive director of external affairs, wrote on Twitter, "Players will be at the combine. Young men have an opportunity of a lifetime. They are not locked out ... yet."

It's up to Cohen — or, more accurately, the people on each side of the table Friday — to start working toward making sure they're not locked out ... at all.

Mike Garafolo: mgarafolo@starledger.com

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