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NFL, Union Expected to Wrap up Week of Mediation

WASHINGTON - There's a week left until the NFL's collective bargaining agreement with the players' union expires.

And Thursday could be a key day.

Not only because that's when the sides are expected to wrap up a full week of face-to-face meetings overseen by a federal mediator in Washington.

There's also a hearing scheduled before a U.S. District Court judge in Minneapolis, about the NFL Players Association's complaint accusing the league of improperly negotiating TV contracts.

At the NFL's annual scouting combine in Indianapolis, meanwhile, the league will hold a session for general managers, coaches and various officials from the 32 teams, who are expected to get an update on the CBA talks.

The current labor deal expires at the end of the day March 3, and the union has been saying for quite some time that it expects the league to lock out players shortly thereafter if a new deal isn't reached.

After months of infrequent and sometimes contentious bargaining, the sides have been communicating regularly since Friday - more than 40 hours of mediation spread over six consecutive days. It's not clear what progress - if any - has been made, because mediator George Cohen asked everyone involved to keep mum.

"I just can't say anything. I'm afraid of Mr. Cohen,'' NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said when he left Wednesday's session. "I'm going to just say, 'No comment.' See you tomorrow morning.''

The league and union went more than two months without any formal bargaining until Feb. 5, the day before the Super Bowl. The sides met again once the next week, then called off a second meeting that had been scheduled for the following day.

The most recent CBA was signed in 2006, but owners exercised an opt-out clause in 2008.

The biggest issue separating the sides is how to divide about $9 billion in annual revenues. Among the other significant points in negotiations: a rookie wage scale; the owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; and benefits for retired players.

The voluntary mediation is seen as an attempt to spur progress.

NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith and most of his negotiating group - including four current players - left Wednesday's session a little after 5:30 p.m.

That was less than an hour after Smith and a dozen members of the union's team returned from a 1 1/2-hour break. It wasn't clear what, if any, significance the break holds, although it was the first time since the mediation began that either side left the building en masse in the middle of a day. Generally, the groups have arrived in the morning and departed in the evening.

NFLPA executive committee members Brian Dawkins of the Denver Broncos, Jeff Saturday of the Indianapolis Colts, and Mike Vrabel and Brian Waters of the Kansas City Chiefs participated Wednesday. Nine of that committee's 11 members have been present at some point during these six days of talks; union president Kevin Mawae and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees have not been seen entering or exiting the meetings.

With Commissioner Roger Goodell and Pash slated to be in Washington for mediation, they were expected to miss Thursday's GMs-coaches meeting in Indianapolis.

The NFL and union also will keep tabs on what happens in Minneapolis, where the union's appeal of this month's ruling on TV contracts will be heard. The union has accused the NFL of structuring TV contracts so owners would be guaranteed money even if there were a lockout in 2011 - while not getting the most revenue possible in other seasons, when income would need to be shared with players.

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