WASHINGTON -- A day after the judge handling the NFL 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 MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and 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, Minn.
And NFL executive vice president Jeffrey Pash sent a letter Thursday to another lawyer representing players, James Quinn, with a copy going to Nelson, proposing to resume talks about 1,000 miles from her courthouse -- to the Washington office of federal mediator George Cohen.
The sides held a conference call Friday to discuss options, a league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
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 ever since the lockout began at midnight March 12, the NFL repeatedly has said it only is interested in returning to mediated bargaining.
In fact, NFL outside counsel David Boies sent a message to Nelson that referred to the purpose of the conference call as "to discuss mediation."
So Thursday's flurry of letters doesn't really represent meaningful progress.
In his letter to Quinn, the NFL's Pash said: "We are prepared to resume discussions as promptly as possible and to have significant ownership involvement in those discussions. Our thought would be to resume discussions under the auspices of George Cohen and his colleagues at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. After spending the better part of three weeks with us, they know the issues, they know the parties, and I think we all agree that they were effective at getting both sides to look openly at each other's positions and try to find solutions."
Pash also told Quinn: "We understand that you will want appropriate assurances that the players will not compromise any legal position as a result of entering into those discussions. We are prepared to give reasonable and appropriate assurances to that effect."
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.
Boies referred to the "head start over any other potential mediator" that Cohen would have, and added, "We cannot see any reason to start back at square one with a different mediator."
Quinn, meanwhile, replied to Pash by saying: "Your invitation to 'resume' discussions in front of Mr. Cohen makes no sense as collective bargaining between the NFLPA and the NFL is over."
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.
The Eller class has suggested Kenneth Feinberg, the U.S. government's special master for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, as the mediator for the Eller v. NFL case, player sources told ESPN's Schefter. There is a pending motion to consolidate the antitrust cases of the current and former players, which means eventually Feinberg could be the mediator for the Brady v. the NFL case.
Information from ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter and The Associated Press was used in this report.