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Secret phone call dampens CBA hopes


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Updated Jun 30, 2011 4:16 AM ET

The night before delivering a joint message to NFL rookies with commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith held an under-the-radar conference call Tuesday to update many of the league’s most prolific stars on the status of labor negotiations, FOXSports.com has learned.

Perhaps the most important thing to emerge from the talks so far was this: While saying he was optimistic because the two sides were continuing to negotiate, Smith painted a different picture than that of a collective bargaining agreement being reached as soon as this weekend.

Smith began the call by informing players — 50 Pro Bowlers were given call-in information, but the number of participants is unknown — that recent reports by certain news outlets were way off. That is why Smith wanted to tell players they still haven’t gotten a good enough offer from the owners to bring to them just yet.

According to several sources, Smith took questions but prefaced that by saying he couldn’t get into specifics because of a court-mandated gag order.

The first question came from Baltimore Ravens All Pro linebacker Ray Lewis. He asked, "How optimistic are you that a deal will get done soon?" Smith insisted that any time the two sides are working together, as they are now, there is reason for hope.

But later in the call when Jacksonville’s Pro Bowl running back Maurice Jones-Drew asked about the details of free agency once the lockout ends, players on the call were given examples of just how sticky these negotiations have become.

A few of the issues cited were the years of service required to become an unrestricted free agent, and money allocated for retired players — neither of which has been agreed upon yet.

It has been widely reported that both sides have agreed to restore parameters of the 2009 CBA that allowed unrestricted free agency after four seasons for players who weren’t under contract. But after Tuesday's conference call, that hardly seems to be the case.

Since this story was first posted, sources have told FOXSports.com the NFL would consent to four years as the unrestricted free agency threshold. However, that is contingent upon each team having a right of first refusal in 2011 on three named players entering their fifth or sixth NFL season who would now qualify as UFAs.

In 2010, unrestricted free agency was granted only to players with six credited NFL seasons. The NFL’s concern is a flooding of the 2011 unrestricted market.

The right-of-first-refusal labels would be in addition to the franchise and transition tags at each team’s disposal that are designed to limit player movement.

The NFL’s proposal will likely be strongly opposed by the players.

"At one point, we were asked if we could sell six years of free agency to our locker rooms, and we all said there’s no way," one player on the call told FOXSports.com.

Interestingly enough, another source close to the situation says the owners have always been willing to grant free agency after four years, as long as there is a salary cap. Thus, a discussion of six years is curious.

"We heard about that and the (issue of) retired players — and that is even before we start talking about splitting the revenue."

Another player said he was glad they had the call "because now I have a better understanding of what’s really going on before other guys in my locker room ask me. I was watching the news for updates, and judging from what I heard today, the updates didn’t seem to be close to what they were telling us during the call. Now we feel a little more informed."

League sources remain optimistic that a deal can be worked out in time to allow training camps to begin on schedule.

These are the first concrete details that a number of players (who participated in the group call) have been given regarding some of the sticking points in negotiations.

Optimism that a new CBA was within reach heightened this week as Goodell and Smith appeared together and spoke at the NFLPA rookie symposium in Bradenton, Fla., on Wednesday.

"We're taking a break because we felt it was important to be down here with the players," Goodell told media after speaking at the symposium. "We both have great respect for the players. This is an important few days. We're going to get back to work."

Presumably, that meant the four consecutive days of planned meetings that began Monday would yield tangible results. These discussion sessions in Minneapolis have included representatives from the NFL office and the NFLPA without owners, players or attorneys from either side present.

Owners and players are expected to re-enter the talks Thursday, according to an NFL Network report. The talks reportedly will include a "select" group of owners and players as well as Goodell, Smith and their respective attorneys.

Players and owners were left jostling for position after the prior CBA expired March 11, leading to an NFL lockout and litigation by players against the league. After several agonizing months of heated rhetoric, bitter accusations and expressed lack of trust on both sides, it seemed as if the NFL and its players were finally closing in on the framework of a new labor agreement, according to multiple media reports.

Among the details reportedly being finalized: revenue sharing among clubs, a rookie wage scale and a full season of Thursday night contests that would be sold in whole or in part as a new television rights package.

There is a heightened sense of urgency to strike a deal and resume NFL business because of the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 7, the league’s first preseason contest.

The Chicago Bears are scheduled to report to training camp July 23, pending a signed and court-approved labor agreement — one week earlier than most teams because of their involvement in the Hall of Fame game.

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