Players, owners facing tight squeeze

NEW YORK -- Over the weekend, while the federal judge mediating the NFL labor impasse left the country for his summer vacation, and no new face-to-face negotiations with the principals were scheduled until Wednesday, players and coaches were poised to push the panic button.

"I think we all wanted to know what was taking so long," said one coach with an AFC East team. "This should have been done by now."

When the mediator, Judge Arthur J. Boylan, announced Saturday that the next court-ordered mediation session was not scheduled until July 19, that raised more questions. Why? That's four days after the deadline imposed by both sides to start the preseason on time.

"Now, it's truly a race against the clock," said one agent who represents more than a dozen potential unrestricted free agents. "My guys realize this is going to be a tight squeeze and they're getting antsy."

Indeed, according to numerous sources around the league, many players are calling their agents, who are calling the union leaders, complaining that the longer these talks go on, the tighter the free-agency window gets -- and that will mean the time available to shop for the best free-agent deal will be significantly reduced. And that means dollars will be lost.

That is one of the reasons, according to league sources, that union chief DeMaurice Smith held a hastily organized conference call of NFL player representatives of all 32 teams Friday afternoon. He wanted to discuss the status of the meetings and to explain the 54-page ruling by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which caused a mad scramble in the labor negotiations conference room at the Proskauer Rose law firm in Manhattan, and around the league.

"We were all told that the ruling was being held back by Boylan -- that was the understanding," said one player rep. "The talks were on track, there was no reason for them to rule. So, they were holding off."

So when the ruling came down, it raised red flags.

Within minutes, the union disseminated to all the player representatives a summary of the ruling. The union's summary insists that despite keeping the lockout in place, the 8th Circuit judges handed the players a complete victory on the status of the pending antitrust case.

"The court's ruling was narrow, and most importantly, the court did NOT rule that the lockout is legal under laws, so that means, as we have emphasized many times, the league remains exposed to massive treble damages as of the moment of the lockout," states the summary, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN.

The summary also strongly suggests that the union could pursue another round of litigation in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. "The court also ruled that the district court (Judge Susan Nelson) could enjoin the lockout of free agents and rookies after it conducts a hearing and listens to witness testimony."

But the summary admits: "This distinction between players under contract and free agents and rookies creates a bizarre chaos for the league."

It's unclear who wrote the summary, but it has the fingerprints of the more radical wing of the union's negotiating team, particularly labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, who is also representing the NBA players in their lockout.

So it's easy to see why there was confusion around the league -- even after Smith and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell put out a joint statement saying the "ruling does not change our mutual recognition that this matter must be resolved through negotiation."

That statement said negotiation was the way to go. But the summary suggested more litigation could be in the offing.

Then, when Boylan pushed back the next mediation session to July 19, it became clear that the preseason schedule would have to be rearranged to avoid losing games, especially the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 7. Each week of the preseason lost means about $200 million to $250 million in lost revenue, which in turn cuts into the salary cap.

If Boylan gets a deal in place by July 19, and the owners ratify it on July 21 in Atlanta, that would give the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams just two days to get into training camp for their scheduled two-week prep time for the Hall of Fame game.

That would leave them little time to participate in free agency -- a competitive disadvantage. So the Bears and Rams might have to shorten camp, or the game would have to be pushed back a week or canceled. But the president of the Hall of Fame, Steve Perry, told ESPN that the game is still being planned as if it will be played Aug. 7.

So while it appears likely that a deal can be reached by July 21, it's still very unclear how the preseason games will be played on time. And that has players, coaches -- and fans -- wondering what's going on.

Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN. This report also contains information from ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter and ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton.