The clock is ticking for the NFL and the NFL Players Association to reach a deal on a new labor contract -- and they may need a Hail Mary pass to save the upcoming season.
Representatives from the NFL and the players' union met again today, hours before the current NFL labor contract expires, in a last-minute effort to hammer out a deal as reports swirled about a possible deadline extension, indicating some progress toward a final agreement.
ESPN's Christ Mortensen reported that NFL owners made a "significant proposal" in today's sessions, and the union is waiting for answers on "fundamental core issues" to determine whether the midnight deadline will be pushed back.
If the deadline hits without an agreement, the owners could move to lock out the players, keeping them out of work. That means no spring practice, no free agency deals and possibly no 2011 season.
The players still have a final option before the midnight deadline. They can decide to decertify or dissolve the union. That would prevent the owners from locking them out, but the players would give up their right to collectively bargain. It also doesn't ensure that a deal will be reached so that football can be played again in the fall.
President Obama weighed in on the issue today during a press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon at the White House, saying that he hopes it can be resolved without his intervention, because he has "a lot of other stuff to do."
The president started off by noting that both sides in the NFL labor dispute are well-compensated: "You've got owners, most of whom are worth close to a billion dollars; you've got players who are making millions of dollars.
"My working assumption, at a time when people are having to cut back, compromise and worry about making the mortgage and, you know, paying for their kid's college education, is that the two parties should be able to work it out without the president of the United States intervening," said Obama.
Obama said that an industry that takes in $9 billion a year in revenue should be able to figure out how to divide that up in a "sensible way" and be true to the sport's fans, who the president said are "the ones who obviously allow for all the money that they're making."
'We're Trying'The two sides have been meeting in Washington, D.C., for more than a week, trying to reach a compromise to avert the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987. A federal mediator stepped in late in February to lead the negotiations.
"[We] want the fans to know that we're trying. We're trying," said Jeff Pash, NFL executive vice-president and general counsel. "We understand our responsibility, and if we don't get it done we know we'll let them down."
The standoff between the league, team owners and players centers on two key issues.
First, there's revenue sharing. NFL players currently receive 60 percent of the league's $9 billion in annual revenue, but team owners say that's unsustainable given the economic downturn. They want to take an additional $1 billion for themselves, reducing the players' share by 9 to 18 percent.
Second, there's the schedule. The league wants to add two more regular season games, for a total of 18. Players say that would increase their risk of injury, and they deserve compensation. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said last month that there are "no deal breakers," but that the status quo is "not acceptable."
Goodell emphasized over the past several weeks that the league and owners understood that a work stoppage would hurt the clubs, the players, the game, the fans and the league's corporate sponsors.
"If we are unsuccessful [in negotiations], uncertainty will continue," he said during a press conference before the Super Bowl last month. "That uncertainty will lead to a reduction in revenue, and when that revenue decreases there is less for us to share," he said, adding that that would make it harder to reach an agreement.
Goodell has pledged to reduce his salary to $1 if there is a work stoppage.
The labor dispute comes after what arguably was the NFL's most successful year. Television viewership was up 13 percent and the Super Bowl was watched by a record 111 million people.
At face value, the dispute looks like a fight between billionaire owners and millionaire athletes, but Ryan Clark of the Pittsburgh Steelers called that view "shameful."
NFL Work Stoppage Would Hurt Economy"I played four years in this league at league minimum, married with a family of three, having to sustain two lives -- and believe me, I was nowhere close to being a millionaire," he told ESPN Wednesday. "The public perception is that it is just two rich groups of people fighting over money, and that's not the case."
The NFL players are highlighting what a work stoppage would mean for the economy in NFL cities.
In meetings last month with members of Congress, including Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and such former NFL players as Reps. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., and Jon Runyan, R-N.J., current and former NFL players focused on how a lockout and canceled season could hurt their communities.
"This Congress is concerned about jobs, jobs and jobs," said Pete Kendall, a former offensive lineman and now a permanent representative on the union's negotiating committee. "A lockout will affect the local economy, not just those who attend the games but those who provide services at the games.
"We're not talking about penalizing players only," Kendall said. "This is going to hurt your parking lot attendants, your restaurants, your hotels. Everybody in your city hurts when this happens."
The NFL insists the changes it is pushing are necessary for the league's long-term financial health.
"This is about the future of our game," Goodell said in January. "There are things that need to be addressed, and we need to address those responsible so that everybody can win."
There are other scenarios that could play out on Thursday. The two sides could agree to push back the deadline, but that seems likely to occur only if they have made enough progress to warrant an extension. The NFL's Pash said that is still an option.
"We're not taking anything off the table," Pash said.