NFL, union continue to bargain

Monday is deadline for avoiding trouble


Negotiators for NFL owners and the players union renewed efforts yesterday to hammer out an extension of the collective bargaining agreement that largely serves as the blueprint for how the league operates.

The deadline for agreeing on an extension was 12:01 a.m. yesterday, but it was extended for 72 hours as both sides try to avoid going down a path that is fraught with economic peril for management and labor and could lead to a destabilization of the NFL's vaunted competitive balance.

Free agency for 2006 now is scheduled to begin early Monday morning, and how many players will be released and the ability of teams to sign fresh talent will be determined by the outcome of the talks.

At issue is how much of the league's revenues will go toward salaries, with management having offered just over 56 percent and the players wanting 60 percent.

Without an extension, clubs will be required late Sunday night to reach the mandated $94.5 million salary cap, a threshold that will force some teams to release an unusually large number of veterans and also restrict the signing of many of those players.

But with an extension, the salary cap is expected to rise as much as $10 million, providing relief league-wide.

By Thursday, talks between the two sides had broken off and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue described the state of negotiations with the NFL Players Association as "dire" after a morning meeting of the league's owners in New York.

But, reportedly, two owners, Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney and Carolina's Jerry Richardson, who are considered moderates among management, stayed behind. And later in the day, the deadline extension was announced.

Although the labor agreement runs through the 2007 season, this is a crucial deadline because the beginning of free agency in 2006 -- without changing the current terms of the labor agreement -- sets off a problematic chain reaction.

The results would be a capless 2007, changes both in the way salary contracts are structured and the conditions of player free agency, and a polarization of labor and management that could lead to a work stoppage in 2008, a free-for-all in the free-agent market and an end to the draft.

The direct and indirect potential for these consequences was written into the agreement -- crafted in 1993 -- to actually work as a deterrent, a so-called "poison pill" to encourage agreement on extensions at regular intervals.

NFL club officials, players, player agents and sports business experts all have said that near- and long-term effects of failing to reach an extension at this critical juncture bodes ill for the league.

Since 1993, the NFL's balance of a salary cap, revenue sharing and carefully structured free agency has led to consistent prosperity while other pro leagues have struggled from time to time.

For more than a week, teams have been trimming rosters in anticipation of a salary cap crunch and, so far, some big names have been cut, including six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle La'Roi Glover of Dallas yesterday and running backs Mike Anderson of Denver and Stephen Davis of Carolina earlier in the week.

Although some veterans would have been cap causalities even without the current crisis, free agency without an extension of the agreement means a much longer list.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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