Friday is a judgment day of sorts for the NFL, but just when it seemed everything was doom and gloom, the players and owners apparently recognized the urgency.
With the court of appeals set for the latest hearing in the Tom Brady antitrust case on June 3, the two sides began meeting quietly Tuesday evening, and there is finally reason for tempered optimism. Neither side had their lawyers in attendance, which means Commissioner Roger Goodell and five owners sat down with three players and NFLPA boss DeMaurice Smith in perhaps their most serious effort yet to reach a new collective bargaining agreement.
The news is good for a number of reasons, first and foremost being they are talking again. Hey, baby steps, right? But the fact that they are meeting voluntarily, and not by court order, for the first time since the lockout started is obviously positive. To do so without their lawyers present, something members on both sides have called for, could be more representative of the sort of good faith bargaining many felt was absent at an earlier date.
A mediator is also involved.
The meetings taking place before a court decision comes down on whether the lockout can continue is equally exciting. Though it is believed the appeal will fall in the owners' favor, the important thing is they are being proactive about doing a deal. Furthermore, while the courts will give one side leverage on Friday, not standing by and waiting to get the upper hand suggests an honest attempt by both parties to negotiate a fair agreement.
The time to resolve this is certainly now. The NFL season doesn't start until September 8, but a laundry list of things have to happen before games can be played. The league has to officially open a new league year, which presumably would be soon but not quite immediately after a CBA is finished. Teams need time to come to terms with draft picks and free agents, then an opportunity to hold training camp and play some exhibition matches.
Even with an abbreviated preseason schedule, for all of that to happen and get the regular season under way on time, it would take an estimated two months when you really break everything down.
Talks were scheduled to continue next Tuesday as part of a court order*, and assuming the progress carries through to then, the situation could thaw. If that's the case, there is still more than enough time for the players and owners to get their differences squared away without jeopardizing part or all of the season. Update: Next week's mediation sessions have been cancelled, according to Daniel Kaplan of the SportsBusiness Journal, citing "confidential settlement talks." This might be the biggest news of all.
Though PFT is throwing cold water on the idea that any measurable progress has taken place, or at least keeping expectations reasonable until there are further developments, it's a step in the right direction. That's all we can really ask as the 2011 NFL season inches closer to oblivion.