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NFL Players Decertify As Strike Seems Certain

Drew Brees makes his way into the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service building for the NFL labor negotiations on March 3, 2011.
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Drew Brees makes his way into the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service building for the NFL labor negotiations on March 3, 2011.

The NFL players' union decertified on Friday, making the league's first work stoppage since 1987 a near certainty.

After 16 days of mediated talks with the NFL, the sides could not reach agreement on a new deal. The current one expires at the end of Friday, and the league could lock out its players.

By decertifying, the union clears the way for individual players to file antitrust lawsuits against the NFL, which opted out of the CBA in 2008. It renounced its right to represent the players in contract bargaining.

The CBA was due to expire a week ago and was extended twice. The union's latest move sets the stage for a lengthy court fight that could potentially threaten the 2011 season. The last work stoppage came when the players struck 24 years ago, leading to games with replacement players.

In 1989, the NFLPA also decertified. Antitrust lawsuits by players forced a new CBA in 1993 that included free agency, and the union formed again that year.

"We met with the owners until about 4 o'clock today," union head DeMaurice Smith said outside the mediator's office. "We discussed a proposal they had presented. At this time, significant differences continue to remain. We informed the owners that ... if there was going to be a request for an extension, that we asked for 10 years of audited financial information to accompany that extension."

About 15 minutes later, the union decertified. "The parties have not achieved an overall agreement," federal mediator George Cohen said, "nor have they been able to resolve the strongly held competing positions that separated them on core issues.

"No useful purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue the mediation process at this time."

The NFL releases this statment after the talks broke down:

"The fastest way to a fair agreement is for both the union and the clubs to continue the mediation process. Unfortunately, the players’ union has notified our office that at 4pm ET it had “decertified” and is walking away from mediation and collective bargaining, presumably to initiate the antitrust litigation it has been threatening to file. ... The union left a very good deal on the table. It included an offer to narrow the player compensation gap that existed in the negotiations by splitting the difference; guarantee reallocation of savings from first-round rookies to veterans and retirees without negatively affecting compensation for rounds 2-7; ensure no compensation reduction for veterans; implement new year-round health and safety rules; retain the current 16-4 season format for at least two years with any subsequent changes subject to the approval of the league and union; and establish a new legacy fund for retired players ($82 million contributed by the owners over the next two years) ...

The NFL clubs remain committed to collective bargaining and the federal mediation process until an agreement is reached. The NFL calls on the union to return to negotiations immediately. NFL players, clubs, and fans want an agreement. The only place it can be reached is at the bargaining table."

The players' union immediately shut down its websites—NFLPA.org and NFLPlayers.com. A search for NFLPA.org yielded this message: "Error 404: Football Not Found. Please be patient as we work on resolving this. We are sorry for the inconvenience."

Decertifying means players would give up their rights under labor law and instead pursue antitrust cases in court, and the owners could impose a lockout. Both actions could threaten the 2011 season of a sport at the height of its popularity. The past two Super Bowls are the two most-watched programs in U.S. television history.

The NFL hasn't lost games to a work stoppage since 1987, when a strike shortened the season and some games included nonunion replacement players.

The current CBA was agreed to in 2006. It included an opt-out clause for each side, and the owners exercised it in May 2008.

There have been various issues discussed during the current negotiations, including the owners' push to increase the regular season from 16 games to 18; a rookie wage scale; and benefits for retired players.

Truly, though, the dispute centers on money: how to divide the billions in revenues, how much of that should go to owners off the top to cover certain costs, and the union's insistence on what it calls "financial transparency."

Under the old CBA, owners received an immediate $1 billion to go toward operating expenses before splitting remaining revenues with players.

Owners initially tried to add another $1 billion to that. Although they have lowered the upfront figure they want—at least down to an additional $800 million—Smith said it is still too much.

"To our fans - I give you my word that we as players are doing everything we can to negotiate with the NFL towards a fair deal," Brees wrote on his Twitter feed Friday morning.

He continued: "The NFL brought this fight to us - they want $1 billion back, we just want financial information to back up that request."

And more: "We have a responsibility to our players - past, present, and future, to advance this league forward, not take 3 steps back."

The labor committee members present Thursday and Friday 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 there both days.

The only missing member of the key league group was Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who is part of a delegation visiting Israel with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

On Thursday, the union complained that none of the owners met with any of the players on hand.

The rhetoric rose as the clock ticked down Thursday night.

"I've said it many times: If both sides have an equal commitment to getting this deal done, it will get done," he said. "I don't know if both sides have an equal commitment. ... Obviously, we have the commitment."

When that was 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 players in their case accusing owners of improperly negotiating TV deals to prepare for a work stoppage.

Smith then went back to the mediator's office to respond to Pash's statement himself.

"We have been committed to this process. But for anyone to stand and turn to the American people and say they question that?" Smith said. "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."

The public acrimony between the sides temporarily had been tamped down in recent weeks, because mediator George Cohen asked the league and union to stay silent about the talks.

"Things can come together quickly," Pash said Thursday night. "Things can fall apart quickly."