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INDIANAPOLIS — After voting unanimously to implement three player-safety focused rule changes Tuesday morning, the NFL owners moved on to the prevailing story line at their spring meeting — the next steps in their battle with the NFL players association.
"We spent a fair amount of time on labor and collective bargaining issues," NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said after meetings adjourned Tuesday. "We gave the clubs a very thorough update on not only where the court cases stand, but of greater interest to the clubs, the whole mediation process and where we are in negotiations."
The league locked out its players March 11 after the players decertified as a union, which allowed them to file an antitrust lawsuit against the league. A preliminary injunction briefly ended the lockout in April, but it was back on when the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay of the lockout. That same court will hear the owners' appeal of the preliminary injunction in St. Louis on June 3 and the two sides are due back in mediation with U.S. Judge Magistrate Arthur Boylan in Minnesota on June 7.
Pash reiterated his theme throughout the labor dispute on Tuesday — negotiations, not litigation, will lead to an agreement.
"I think the thing we need to do, both for atmospheric purposes and for substantive reasons, is to get away from the courtroom setting and not have our focus be on what's the next court date and who is taking this appeal from what ruling and who is filing this motion to accomplish that result," Pash said. "Instead (we need to) get the people who can make decisions and make agreements into a conference room together and have the kinds of candid discussions that need to be had and that can result in an agreement and in some compromise to get the game back on the field as quickly as possible."
Pash said that litigation has had a polarizing effect, freezing negotiations on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
"All we have to do is put some of the harshness that the litigation process brings with it behind us," Pash said. "Just check it at the door and recognize that we have a tremendous opportunity to build something together. If there is that kind of a shared commitment and shared recognition of what is available for players, for fans, for clubs, for retired players, I don't think there's any limit to what we could accomplish, but we've got to stop thinking of it as a binary equation — one side wins, one side loses. That's not the way to look at it.
"We ought to be figuring out how everybody advances, how everybody wins, how everybody is better off. I really believe we can do that."
The problem, Pash indicated, is that "to have a Collective Bargaining Agreement you need to have a labor organization of some form or another."
The NFLPA became a trade association after it decertified, but the league's legal representatives have argued that the decertification was a sham and that it's still functioning as a union.
"I don't personally believe that the NFL players association has vanished from the face of the earth or that it's not continuing to do much of what a labor organization would do, but that's not the point," Pash said.
Pash was asked whether he disagrees that the ruling from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals — which could be at least several weeks away — could prompt a serious set of negotiations. The league will have to open its doors and resume business if the decision is in the players' favor. The lockout will remain in place, however, if the court finds in favor of the league, and there is speculation that it will on the heels of it ordering the permanent stay.
Pash said it shouldn't take that ruling to prompt serious negotiations and that the ruling will not resolve anything.
"There's a fair and balanced and positive agreement to be made," he said. "I really believe that. If I didn't believe it, I'd be quite discouraged, but I'm not. I really believe there's an agreement to be made here that will work for everybody."