DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, arrives at the federal courthouse Thursday. (Photo: AP Photo/Jim Mone)
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The NFL and its locked-out players are talking again.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft arrived at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis on Thursday for a court-ordered mediation session in front of a judge.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith was joined by attorneys, linebackers Ben Leber and Mike Vrabel, as well as Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller. Smith greeted reporters as he approached the building, but he didn't respond to questions. Asked about his hope for the session as he hustled to the entrance, Vrabel smiled and joked that he just hoped he wasn't late.
It was the first meeting between the two sides since March 11, when the old collective bargaining agreement expired, the union was dissolved to clear the way for the court fight and the lockout began — the NFL's first work stoppage since the monthlong strike in 1987.
With the lockout at 33 days and counting and the 2011 season in peril, U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan is overseeing the second round of mediation between the two sides. Sixteen days of mediated sessions in Washington failed to secure a new labor pact.
League officials, led by executive vice president Jeff Pash, met with Boylan for about five hours Wednesday. Lawyers for the players met with Boylan for about four hours Tuesday.
Goodell declined to comment as the group entered the courthouse. Pash said: "The only way we're going to get this whole set of issues resolved is by negotiating."
Eller said he was hopeful of progress.
"I'm a fan, too. We would like to ease their minds," Eller said.
The mediation is the first positive step in the dispute in more than a month, but the league and players still must agree on how to divide more than $9 billion in annual revenue.
The owners initially wanted to double the money they get off the top for expenses from about $1 billion to about $2 billion, but that number dropped during the last round of mediation. The players have insisted on full financial disclosure from all 32 teams, and so far the league has not opened the books to their liking.
Other major issues included benefits for retired players and the NFL's desire to stretch the regular season from 16 to 18 games. The NFL also wants to cut almost 60 percent of guaranteed pay for first-round draft picks, lock them in for five years and divert the savings to veterans' salaries and benefits.
More than $525 million went to first-rounders in guaranteed payments in 2010. The league wants to decrease that figure by $300 million, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
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 are talking again — even though it's under a court order.
AP Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York contributed to this report.
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