NFL players, owners to meet for first time since lockout

Attorneys for the NFL met with the federal judge overseeing court-ordered mediation for five hours Wednesday, one day before the first talks between the league and its locked-out players since the middle of last month.

Executive vice president Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead negotiator, was in attendance along with other NFL officials and outside counsel. They declined to comment before sitting down with U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan. Lawyers for the players met with Boylan for about four hours Tuesday.

"We appreciate the opportunity to meet with the magistrate and review the issues with him in preparation for our session tomorrow, and we're looking forward to seeing the players and their representatives tomorrow morning," Pash said. He declined to comment further.

The two sides are scheduled to be in the same room with Boylan on Thursday, the first meetings since the collective bargaining agreement expired March 11, the union was dissolved and the NFL wound up with its first work stoppage since the 1987 strike.

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Larger contingents are expected when mediation begins, including commissioner Roger Goodell himself. League spokesman Greg Aiello told The Associated Press that Goodell will attend along with some of the owners.

NFL Players Association executive DeMaurice Smith is scheduled to attend, too, after withdrawing from a speaking event at Wake Forest in North Carolina so he could be in Minnesota.

The NFLPA, dissolved by a vote of the players, is now a trade association and not an organized labor union. Smith, an attorney, was formally added to the legal team last week so he could represent the players in mediation even though he is no longer their union boss.

Boylan has a reputation as a problem-solver, though what he can accomplish after more than two weeks of mediated talks fell short last month in Washington remains to be seen. He has been a magistrate since 1996 and presided over numerous mediations, including a $195 million settlement between Boston Scientific and about 4,000 claims involving heart defibrillators and pacemakers made by Guidant Corp.

The key for Boylan is to make both sides comfortable with his neutrality and fairness, said Robert Berliner, an attorney who runs the Berliner Group mediation service in Chicago. He said the judge also has to prove he knows the subject and is flexible.

Persuasiveness is a must, too.

"I think this is a fascinating opportunity to bring this to a successful conclusion, but the parties have to be willing," Berliner said. "The mediator can only suggest, cajole and work hard to bring them together. He can't make it happen, and if the parties aren't willing to make a deal the best mediator in the world can't make it happen."

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who ordered the mediation, is still considering a request from the players to lift the lockout imposed by the owners. After an April 6 hearing, she said she planned to rule on the injunction request in a couple of weeks.

Players including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning filed the request along with a class-action antitrust suit against the league. The lawsuit has been combined with two other similar claims from retirees, former players and rookies-to-be.

For now, at least the two sides will be talking again -- even though it's under a court order.

"Whether they'll make progress, it's really hard to tell," Berliner said. "I'd like to think so because I'm firmly a believer that parties are way better off deciding these issues for themselves than having courts decide them."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)