By Howard Fendrich, AP Pro Football Writer
WASHINGTON -- A day after the judge handling the National Football League lockout lawsuit urged the sides to go "back to the table," the players and owners both expressed a willingness to do so. The hitch: Each offered to meet for talks in a setting the other finds unpalatable.
A lawyer representing NFL Most Valuable Player quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and other players suing the NFL, wrote U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson on Thursday to say they're willing to engage in mediation overseen by her federal court in St. Paul.
And the NFL sent its own letter Thursday to Nelson and to lawyers for the players, proposing to resume talks about 1,000 miles from that courthouse -- instead returning to the Washington office of federal mediator George Cohen.
Nelson said she would need "a couple of weeks" to decide the lockout
Since filing suit in Minnesota on March 11, the players repeatedly have said they only are interested in meeting with the league to discuss settling the litigation. And since the lockout began at midnight later that night, the NFL repeatedly has said it only is interested in returning to mediated bargaining.
"Our letter to the players' attorneys today proposes negotiations with owner involvement under the supervision of Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Director George Cohen. A copy has been sent to Judge Nelson," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello wrote in an e-mail. "The goal of the discussions would be to resolve all outstanding issues and achieve a global resolution. As part of our proposal, we offered to give the players assurances that they will not compromise any legal position as a result of the discussions."
Cohen mediated 16 days of negotiations in February and March that failed to result in a new collective bargaining agreement, and the old one expired. The union dissolved itself, saying it no longer represented players in bargaining under labor law, which allowed them to sue the league under antitrust law. Owners locked out the players, creating the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987.
During Wednesday's hearing in St. Paul on the players' request for a preliminary injunction that would lift the lockout, Nelson recommended court-supervised talks, saying such negotiations should take place at "not the players' table, not the league's table, but a neutral table, if you will."
"This is really a matter that should be resolved as soon as possible," added Nelson, who said she would take "a couple of weeks" to rule on the players' bid for an injunction.
Nelson said she "would be glad to facilitate" negotiations, if the sides were interested.
"As class counsel on behalf of the Brady class, we think this is an excellent suggestion and are prepared to engage in such mediation without delay," an attorney for the players, Barbara Berens, wrote to Nelson on Thursday. "Our agreement is, of course, contingent on the NFL defendants' agreement that they will not attempt to use this, our willingness to mediate, against the Brady class in some way, for example by arguing that such mediation efforts constitute 'collective bargaining' or otherwise arise out of a 'labor relationship.'"
Also Thursday, Nelson received yet another letter accepting her offer of facilitating mediation -- this one from a lawyer representing Hall of Famer Carl Eller and other retired players whose case was combined with the Brady case.
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in Minnesota contributed to this report.