WASHINGTON, DC — — With the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement just hours away Thursday evening, the NFL and the players' union made a rare definitive move.
They called a timeout.
The sides agreed to a 24-hour extension of the deadline, moving it to midnight Eastern time Friday, to continue federal mediation talks.
People familiar with the negotiations but not authorized to speak about them indicated there's a good chance another extension could come Friday, one that could push the expiration deadline back three to seven days or more.
Neither side is saying much. A large group of reporters waited throughout the day in front of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service before DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Assn., emerged to say: "To all our fans who dig our game, we appreciate your patience as we work through this. We're going to keep working. We want to play football."
Mediator George H. Cohen revealed even less, issuing a statement that simply read: "The parties have agreed to a one-day extension."
Before leaving for the night, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters: "We are working as hard as we can."
Vonnie Holliday, player representative for the Washington Redskins, perhaps saying more than he should, told the Washington Post that owners still haven't given the players a formal proposal, and told the NBC affiliate in Washington that the two sides "are not in the same ballpark" and have not discussed major issues.
Even President Barack Obama was asked to share his thoughts on the issue when asked Thursday whether 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."
In speaking to reporters at the Super Bowl last month, attorney Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead negotiator, said a deadline extension was an option.
"If you're making progress, you can stop the clock," he said. "It's not a Thelma and Louise-type situation, where you just go over the cliff and that's all you can do."
The timing is vital to both sides, who are arguing how to divide the league's $9 billion in annual revenues.
The union needs to decertify before the CBA deadline, or must wait six months to do so. If the union decertifies — or essentially disbands as a union — the NFL arguably would be in violation of antitrust laws by locking out the players (although the league would dispute that in federal court) and the players could keep their case in the jurisdiction of U.S. District Judge David Doty of Minnesota. The league believes Doty has leaned heavily in the direction of the players and wants cases heard by another judge.
The decertified union would seek an injunction from Doty's court to block the league from locking out the players. According to multiple reports, if the union decides to decertify, the lead plaintiffs in an antitrust lawsuit against the league would include quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
Anticipating the union's move, the NFL has already filed its case with the National Labor Relations Board calling any attempted decertification a "sham."
The NFL's biggest weapon is locking out of the players, which would not only get the case out of Judge Doty's court but would apply maximum pressure to force a deal, particularly when those players started to miss paychecks during the regular season.
The league suffered a setback earlier this week, however, when Doty overruled the decision of an arbitrator by saying the NFL was in violation of the CBA by negotiating $4 billion of so-called lockout insurance in the latest TV contracts. Owners were to be paid whether there was football next season or not, and not having access to that money puts much more pressure on them to ensure games are played.