ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - Commissioner Roger Goodell is going straight to the fans to deliver the NFL's message on the league's labor impasse.
In a series of conference calls with season ticket holders this spring, Goodell has told thousands of paying customers that the owners and players need to negotiate, not litigate their differences, that the league has no plans to use replacement players and that the NFL is planning for a full slate of games in 2011.
The players took their case to court after talks on a new labor agreement fell apart earlier this year. The owners responded by locking out the players. That lockout was lifted by another judge, but an appeals court has put her ruling on hold before a hearing in St. Louis on June 3.
On Monday, as the sides met in Minneapolis on Monday for another round of court-ordered mediation, an appeals panel extended the stay allowing the lockout to continue.
Goodell was taking questions from Buffalo Bills season ticket holders on Monday, his 16th such call since April 15. There are five more lined up and likely more to come after that.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said all the commissioner's conference calls are done at the invitation of the team, and the purpose isn't necessarily to promulgate the league's side of the labor dispute.
"He has been interacting with fans in various ways since he became commissioner in 2006. He values their opinions, wants to hear their concerns and be responsive to their questions,'' Aiello told The Associated Press, which reviewed transcripts of the calls and in some cases, listened in.
What fans want to know is when the labor dispute will end, and the commissioner is pointing the finger at the players.
Goodell has found a mostly sympathetic audience among pro football's staunchest supporters, though not all callers are lobbing softball questions at him.
Moreover, it's a target audience the players' side can't reach directly.
"I think that the commissioner's strategy is a good one,'' said Pete Webb, a Denver-based public relations specialist. "It allows him to speak directly to the fans, and he can give them a relatively unfiltered message. He's telling them what he wants them to hear, so he's planting the seeds of the league's message in their minds.
"What's intriguing here is whether it's going to work. He's walking a fine line. You don't want to raise false hope, but you want the fans to know the season may not start on time if this is not resolved. The message is: 'If it doesn't work, don't blame me.'''
In a 30-minute call with Denver Broncos season ticket holders Friday in which just about every question concerned the league's labor situation, Goodell directed blame for the impasse at DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL Players Association, and the union's attorneys.
In response to a question from a fan whose family has had season tickets for a half century and who hopes to take his 11-year-old son to his first Monday night game when the Broncos open the season against the Oakland Raiders on Sept. 12 in Denver, Goodell said: "One of the things that frustrates me, as I'm sure frustrates every fan, is that (there's) not enough negotiating going on. That's how this thing is going to get resolved.''
"Unfortunately, the attorneys for the players association have pushed a litigation strategy,'' Goodell said, adding that the sooner the sides got back to the bargaining table and out of the courtroom, "the sooner we can assure the fact that you're going to be sitting at Mile High on Monday night with your 11-year-old son.''
A spokesman for the NFLPA didn't respond to the AP's requests for reaction to Goodell's comments.
The Broncos said 5,100 season ticket holders participated in their conference call with Goodell, who said he remains a fan of an 18-game schedule and that the league would cut down on offseason workouts to try to keep players safe. He said the NFL has tried to mandate that players wear hip, thigh and knee pads, but the players have been reluctant to do so.
The commissioner said the league's policy is to issue full refunds for any games that are missed because of the labor impasse and stressed the NFL isn't considering using replacement players should the dispute drag into the fall.
"I would tell you that our sole focus has been on negotiating an agreement with the players,'' he told Falcons season ticket holders. "We have not been considering any kind of replacement-player strategy. That's not something that we would like to do and we're not even considering that. Our thought here is how do we get the players back on the field that we know you want to see and that's what we're focused on entirely.''