Negotiations to avoid the first National Football League work stoppage in 24 years turned to litigation Friday as the union that represents pro football players decided to punt future labor talks and put their game in the hands of lawyers and judges.
Despite more than two weeks of negotiations overseen by federal mediator George Cohen, the league's 32 owners and its players union could not agree on how to split more than $9 billion in annual revenue, the key sticking point in talks for a new collective bargaining agreement.
"Today I'm sad for our fans, I'm sad for our players," said DeMaurice Smith, the union's executive director. "But I'll tell you what, the last message to the National Football League didn't come from the executive director. . . . It was players who risk everything, every day for the game that they love."
At 4:45 p.m. Friday, facing a midnight expiration of the current labor agreement, Smith said significant differences remained in talks with the league. But the players offered to extend negotiations for a third time in eight days if the NFL would provide 10 years of audited financial records. They wanted evidence that the owners need the bigger share of the revenue they are requesting.
The team owners didn't agree to turn over the records by a 5 p.m. deadline, and the union announced it had filed paperwork in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis to decertify, enabling individual players to file lawsuits against the league claiming violation of antitrust laws.
The league said that's what the players wanted all along.
"No one is happy with where we are now," said Jeff Pash, the league's chief negotiator. "I think we know where the (union's) commitment was. It was a commitment to litigate all along.
"We're discouraged, we're frustrated, we're disappointed, but we are not giving up. We know this will be resolved in the negotiating process."
Despite an antitrust suit filed by 10 players on Friday, and a request for an injunction to bar the NFL from locking them out, the owners were expected to respond by locking players out of club facilities as early as this weekend.
Meanwhile, pro football fans have no idea how long this will go on. They are spectators only in a blame game that threatens the 2011 season.
"I know that we have a long ways to go," said union chief Smith. "I know perhaps the way people feel about football today is a little bit less than what they thought about football the day before. But I'm proud of the men that have devoted themselves to be leaders."
The announcement of the talks' breakdown came after a 16th day of negotiations in Cohen's Washington, D.C., office.
"The parties have not achieved an overall agreement, nor have they been able to resolve the strongly held competing positions that separated them on core issues," Cohen said. "No useful purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue the mediation process at this time."
Friday's events set the stage for months of legal scrimmages with federal judges serving as referees overseeing how to split the largesse generated by the most popular sport in America. The last NFL work stoppage came in 1987, a strike that resulted in games using nonunion replacement players.
What it all means is that until there is a new labor agreement, there will be no on-field action or communication between players and team employees. Players immediately lose all their insurance benefits. Team doctors will be allowed to monitor the progress of injured players but not at the club's facility.
There will be no free agency, player trades or other transactions. The NFL will hold its annual draft in April, but once those players are selected and have their introductory news conferences, they can have no negotiations or communication with the team that selected them.
It was believed the sides were making progress this week. And the NFL made financial concessions in a new proposal Friday. The league, which under the expiring agreement took $1 billion annually off the top of revenues and gave the players 58 percent of what was left, originally was asking for an additional $1 billion. That figure had been lowered to an additional $650 million, Smith said.
NFL negotiators said they offered to "split the difference" on many of the financial issues and in other areas of contention agreed to a rookie wage scale, abandoned attempts to increase the regular season to 18 games from 16 for at least two years, proposed a reduction of offseason workouts by five weeks and to limit contact drills during the preseason and regular season, and offered to establish a fund for retired players with an $82 million contribution over the next two years.
"We worked hard. We didn't reach an agreement, obviously," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. "The union walked away from the mediation process today. . . . They've chosen to choose another strategy, and that is their choice. But we will be prepared to negotiate an agreement and get something done that is fair to the players and fair to the clubs."
NFL star quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees were among the players who sued the league Friday. The players won a victory in U.S. District Judge David S. Doty's court last week when he ruled the NFL violated terms of the collective bargaining agreement when it negotiated $4 billion in payouts from television networks in the event of a lockout.
Giants president and CEO John Mara said he believed the union was never interested in negotiating a deal. Owners hope they can convince the union to return to mediated talks soon.
"One thing that became painfully apparent to me during this period was (the union's) objective was to go the litigation route," Mara said "I think they believe that gives them the best leverage."
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers plan to strictly enforce a league-imposed gag order on labor matters. Quarterback Josh Freeman is expected to coordinate team workouts in the absence of formal practices.
The union immediately shut down its websites, NFLPA.org and NFLPlayers.com, after talks broke off Friday. The message on NFLPA.org said: "Error 404: Football Not Found. Please be patient as we work on resolving this. We are sorry for the inconvenience."
And it directed people to another site, nfllockout.com.