MINNEAPOLIS - The NFL and its locked-out players are set to start talking again, after more than a month since they last met about a new collective bargaining agreement.
Might this foreshadow progress toward ensuring that pro football goes on this fall? Or is the court-ordered mediation between the two sides merely a formality that will yield little as long as a key legal ruling on the lockout is still pending?
Thirty-three days after the NFL and the players cut off negotiations and put the 2011 season in peril, they'll return to the table Thursday with U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan mediating the session in federal court in Minneapolis.
League officials, led by executive vice president Jeff Pash, met with Boylan for about five hours Wednesday. Lawyers for the players met with Boylan for about four hours Tuesday.
"We appreciate the opportunity to meet with the magistrate and review the issues with him in preparation for our session tomorrow, and we're looking forward to seeing the players and their representatives tomorrow morning,'' Pash said.
Larger contingents are expected Thursday, with commissioner Roger Goodell himself scheduled to arrive. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello also said some of the owners will be there.
This was posted on Goodell's Twitter feed Wednesday night: "I am also looking forward to resuming mediation talks tomorrow with players and their representatives.''
NFL Players Association executive DeMaurice Smith is set to attend, too, after withdrawing from a speaking event in North Carolina so he could be in Minnesota.
The NFLPA, dissolved by a vote of the players, is now a trade association and not a union. Smith, an attorney, was formally added to the legal team last week so he could represent the players in mediation even though he is no longer their union boss.
Mediation is considered the first positive step in this process since March 11, when the union was dissolved, the CBA expired and the NFL wound up a few hours later with its first work stoppage since the 1987 strike. All that has taken place since are lawsuits and sharp disagreements between the sides in one of the most rancorous sports labor disputes in memory.
The lockout followed 16 days of negotiations overseen by a federal mediator in Washington, with the league and players failing to agree on how to divide more than $9 billion in annual revenue.
The owners initially wanted to double the money they get off the top for expenses from about $1 billion to about $2 billion, but that number decreased during the last round of mediation. The players have insisted on full financial disclosure from all 32 teams, and so far the league has not opened the books to their liking.
Other major issues included benefits for retired players and the NFL's desire to stretch the regular season from 16 to 18 games. The NFL also wants to cut almost 60 percent of guaranteed pay for first-round draft picks, lock them in for five years and divert the savings to veterans' salaries and benefits.
More than $525 million went to first-rounders in guaranteed payments in 2010. The league wants to decrease that figure by $300 million, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. The NFLPA had no immediate comment.
Boylan has a reputation as a problem-solver, but his work is cut out for him.
The key for Boylan is to make both sides comfortable with his neutrality and fairness, said Robert Berliner, an attorney who runs the Berliner Group mediation service in Chicago. He said the judge also has to prove he knows the subject and is flexible. Persuasiveness is a must, too.
"I think this is a fascinating opportunity to bring this to a successful conclusion, but the parties have to be willing,'' Berliner said. "The mediator can only suggest, cajole and work hard to bring them together. He can't make it happen, and if the parties aren't willing to make a deal, the best mediator in the world can't make it happen.''
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who ordered the mediation, is still considering a request from the players to lift the lockout imposed by the owners. After an April 6 hearing, she said she planned to rule on the injunction request in a couple of weeks.
Players including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning filed the request along with a class-action antitrust suit against the league. The lawsuit has been combined with two other similar claims from retirees, former players and rookies-to-be.
For now, at least the two sides will be talking again - even though it's under a court order.
"Whether they'll make progress, it's really hard to tell,'' Berliner said. "I'd like to think so because I'm firmly a believer that parties are way better off deciding these issues for themselves than having courts decide them.''
AP Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York contributed to this report.