Goodell, NFL officials meet with mediator before Thursday talks

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, general counsel Jeff Pash and outside labor counsel Bob Batterman are meeting with mediator George Cohen at his Washington D.C. office, a source with knowledge of the situation said Wednesday night, just hours after league owners concluded their get-together in a suburban hotel.

NFL Players Association officials aren’t involved in the meeting at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and full mediation between the union and the league isn’t scheduled until 9 a.m. ET Thursday, according to the source. It’s unknown how long the league officials will meet with Cohen on Wednesday night.

New York Giants owner John Mara and Green Bay Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy also were in attendance.

The league and the union talked for four hours earlier Wednesday, then NFL owners departed for Chantilly, Va., where they held a three-hour special labor meeting without taking a vote about whether or not to lock out players when the current collective bargaining agreement expires at midnight ET Thursday.

Most of the owners departed from the suburban D.C. hotel after the meeting, canceling another session scheduled for Thursday. The meeting was intended to provide updates to all owners and determine their next steps in the negotiating process.

“There was nothing official about a lockout,” Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said after exiting the meeting.

Irsay said the discussion in the meeting was “thorough,” and he believed the ongoing dialogue between the NFL and NFLPA was a positive. When asked if he was frustrated that the situation could be headed to the courtroom via suits and countersuits, Irsay replied, “Business and frustration, they just go hand-in-hand.”

Earlier Wednesday in Washington, a large group of owners and players’ union president Kevin Mawae participated in mediated talks for the first time. The ninth session at Cohen’s office also included Goodell.

After the early session, the NFL contingent — which included the entire 10-man labor committee — hopped into a fleet of six black SUVs at approximately 2 p.m. ET and headed to Chantilly to begin filling in other owners on the status of the negotiations.

The NFL’s labor committee is comprised of owners Mara, Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers, Pat Bowlen of the Denver Broncos, Art Rooney II of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, Clark Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots, Dean Spanos of the San Diego Chargers and Mike Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals, as well as Mark Murphy.

“We decided it would be a good idea for our full committee to meet with this mediation process,” Richardson said. “Our objective, of course, is to negotiate a fair agreement for players and teams. So far, we obviously haven’t had success. We’re optimistic in due time we will.”

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said more mediation sessions were expected.

“The committee has not made any decision as to what will happen upon expiration of the current agreement if we don’t have a new one by tomorrow night,” Aiello said.

Owners not on the NFL Management Council Executive Committee left the area when the owners’ meeting portion was over.

“I’m still optimistic, and we’ve still got a few hours to go,” New York Jets owner Woody Johnson said.

The players’ union group exited the mediator’s office shortly after the league group did but didn’t return in the evening.

“We’re talking,” NFLPA president Kevin Mawae said before the early meeting. “That’s better than not talking.”

Said Pash: “I think it’s important to reach an agreement as soon as you can. We’ve talked about the damage uncertainty does to the league, the damage uncertainty does to the players.”

Mawae and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, an NFLPA executive committee member, joined the mediation for the first time Wednesday.

“Hopefully we get a little closer to where we need to be,” Mawae said.

In an exclusive interview with NFL Network’s Albert Breer, Brees was asked why he believed it was important for a player of his stature to be involved in the talks.

“Because I feel like I can make a difference,” he said. “I feel like I represent all 1,900 players in this league, just as all the players who are involved do.

“I know how many have sacrificed on my behalf in the past. I’m just trying to do the same for them.”

Another large group of players accompanied NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith on Wednesday, including Mawae, Brees, Minnesota Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, Denver Broncos safety Brian Dawkins, New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth.

The NFL’s labor committee arrived in the D.C. area Tuesday and met over dinner, shortly after a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge David Doty in Minneapolis in which he sided with the union by overruling a special master’s Feb. 1 decision to reject the NFLPA’s request that $4 billion in 2011 payments from networks to the league be placed in escrow if there is a lockout.

“It doesn’t change the dynamic for us,” Pash said. “It was very clear the TV money was a loan. The decision was not unexpected.”

Mawae believes the ruling works in the players’ favor.

“I feel great we won the case with Doty,” he said.

The mediation in front of Cohen, which resumed Tuesday for six hours after a weekend break, doesn’t have a definite end point. Cohen had cleared his schedule to continue mediation at least through Wednesday.

The CBA runs out at midnight as Thursday becomes Friday on the East Coast, and the owners could lock out the players afterward. The union also could decertify — essentially, declare itself out of the business of representing players — and let the players take their chances in court.

“We’re less than two days away from the deadline, so obviously this is crunch time,” Brees said. “We, as players, want to get a deal done. There is definitely a sense of urgency on our side.