WASHINGTON — The tension and stakes rose Thursday in the NFL labor talks with only hours left before the twice-extended collective bargaining agreement expires, increasing the possibility of the league losing games to a work stoppage for the first time in nearly a quarter-century.
With the two sides far apart on key economic issues, nine of the 10 members of the owners' labor committee joined NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Thursday at the office of the federal mediator overseeing the talks — but, the union said, none of the owners met with any players.
Even though there were small-group negotiations between NFL and union representatives, no one gave any indication that progress was made. Indeed, the loudest words came in the evening, during a series of back-and-forth barbs sparked by league general counsel and lead negotiator Jeff Pash's comments.
"Things can come together quickly. Things can fall apart quickly," Pash said when the NFL negotiating team left for the day. "I've said it many times: If both sides have an equal commitment to getting this deal done, it will get done. I don't know if both sides have an equal commitment. ... Obviously, we have the commitment."
When those comments were relayed to NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah, he responded with an e-mail to The Associated Press that said: "Jeff Pash was part of an executive team that sold the networks a $4 billion ticket to a game they knew wouldn't be played. The only thing they've been committed to is a lockout."
That is a reference to a court ruling last week, when the federal judge overseeing NFL labor matters sided with the players in their case accusing owners of improperly negotiating TV deals to prepare for a lockout.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith went back to the mediator's office to respond to Pash himself.
"We have been committed to this process. But for anyone to stand and turn to the American people and say they question that? Look, I understand that there's probably some things Jeff Pash just has to say, but this is the truth: We know that as early as March of 2009 ... the National Football League engaged in a strategy to get $4 billion of television money ... even if the games weren't played."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello tweeted: "When is union going to respond to our 150 pages of draft CBA provisions that they received eight days ago. Waiting."
The CBA originally was supposed to expire last week. The sides agreed to push that deadline to today; if a deal isn't reached, there could be another extension.
What certainly sounded more likely, given Thursday's tone, was that talks could break off, leading to a lockout by owners or decertification by the union, followed by antitrust lawsuits by players — actions that could threaten the 2011 season.
Since the 1987 players' strike shortened that season — and some games included nonunion replacement players — there has been labor peace in the NFL. The foundation of the current CBA was reached in 1993 by then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and union chief Gene Upshaw. It has been extended five times as annual revenues soared above $9 billion, the league expanded to 32 teams, and new stadiums were built.
The 2006 contract extension was the final major act for Tagliabue, who then retired, succeeded by Goodell. An opt-out clause for each side was included in that deal, and the owners exercised it in May 2008 — three months before Upshaw died. Smith replaced Upshaw in March 2009.
The labor committee members present Thursday were Jerry Richardson of the Panthers, Pat Bowlen of the Broncos, Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, John Mara of the Giants, Art Rooney II of the Steelers, Clark Hunt of the Chiefs, Mark Murphy of the Packers, Dean Spanos of the Chargers and Mike Brown of the Bengals. Eagles president Joe Banner and Redskins general manager Bruce Allen also were present Thursday.
While Mara, Hunt and Murphy occasionally participated in the talks since mediation began Feb. 18, a group this large attended only one previous session, last week.
The only missing member of the key league group was Patriots owner Robert Kraft, part of a delegation visiting Israel with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Asked Thursday whether he expects next season to start on time, Kraft told The Associated Press: "That's my belief."