Cowboys owner Jerry Jones emerges from the NFL owners' meeting on… (Rob Carr / Getty Images )
Reporting from Chantilly, Va.
After most NFL owners left their one-day meeting Wednesday and headed for the fleet of black SUVs waiting outside their hotel, the league's top labor bargaining committee worked another hour, presumably strategizing for what could be an eventful Thursday.
The Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones, among the owners who stayed late, was atypically tight-lipped as he walked out of the meeting room, a cluster of TV cameras focused on him as he passed.
"We're under such a tight restriction, it almost covers body language," Jones said, walking briskly through the hotel lobby.
The information coming out of the NFL Players Assn. in nearby Washington, D.C., was similarly sparse and cryptic. Drew Brees, quarterback of the New Orleans Saints and a member of the union's executive committee, tweeted: "We the NFL Players are in DC ready to get a deal done, just in case anyone wants to know."
Late Wednesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, top attorney Jeff Pash and outside labor counsel Bob Batterman were back with the federal mediator in Washington to participate with the union in their 10th negotiating session in nine days.
There are no solid indications the NFL and its players are any closer to a labor deal that would replace the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires when Thursday turns to Friday on the East Coast.
As of Wednesday night, the sides had tentatively agreed to more mediation Thursday, yet neither party had indicated they were any closer on their major differences — how to divide the league's annual $9 billion in revenue.
"I'm sure you guys have heard the Vegas rule, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said when asked about progress in mediation. "This is the Vegas rule. I think it's important to have some sanctity in the rooms where the negotiations are happening. That's the best way to get something done."
The process feels like a high-stakes game of chicken, with each side waiting for the other to flinch while fast approaching the cliff's edge.
Among the possibilities:
•The NFLPA could decertify as a union before the CBA expires, thereby keeping their case in the favorable court of U.S. District Judge David Doty, and building an argument that the owners cannot stop football operations under antitrust law. That decertification would have to take place by 5 p.m. EST Thursday at the National Labor Relations Board, and the players could concurrently ask Doty for an injunction to block a lockout. Anticipating that move, the NFL has already challenged the validity of the decertification with the NLRB.
The league also would argue that it still has the ability to lock out the players, the most effective motivational tool it has to get a new deal done.
•In the unlikely scenario that the union opts not to decertify, the NFL can wait until the CBA expires, then lock out the players. The union has long argued that's precisely what the owners have been planning to do. The move would also take Doty out of the equation, something the league has wanted to do for years.
•The sides could agree to stop the clock and continue working toward an agreement. This might be the most unlikely of the three scenarios, but it's far from inconceivable. A postponement would probably come as the result of a request from the mediator.
After all, as one observer noted, these are not divorce proceedings — the sides will eventually make up —but more like a couple bickering about how to remodel the house. Obviously, there are strong feelings on both sides. But each also understands the value of the nation's most popular sports league.
"We're still working hard," New York Jets owner Woody Johnson said before ducking into his limousine. "There's good intentions on both sides."