WASHINGTON - Say this for the NFL and its players' union: They are on speaking terms at the moment.
The sides met with a federal mediator for the fourth day in a row Monday, trying to make progress toward a new collective bargaining agreement before the current labor deal expires.
After months of infrequent - and sometimes contentious - bargaining, the league and union were face-to-face Friday, Saturday and Sunday for a total of more than 20 hours. The sessions are taking place at the office of George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a U.S. government agency.
"Conversation,'' New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson said Sunday, "is good.''
The NFL's labor deal expires at the end of the day March 3. The union has said it believes team owners want to lock out the players as soon as the next day, which could threaten the 2011 season.
Members of the NFL's negotiating team began arriving at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service at 8 a.m. Monday. Commissioner Roger Goodell walked in alone shortly after 9 a.m. The NFL's group included general counsel and lead labor negotiator Jeff Pash and outside lawyer Bob Batterman.
Batterman represented the NHL when it lost its entire 2004-05 season to a lockout.
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith got to Cohen's office at about 11 a.m., entering with New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Fujita. Richardson and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch were other current players attending the meeting; they brought luggage with them, but wouldn't say why.
Former players Pete Kendall and Sean Morey also were part of the union contingent Monday, along with lawyers Richard Berthelsen and Jeffrey Kessler.
The sides met for about six hours on both Friday and Saturday. Cohen announced Thursday the groups agreed to the mediation, which is not binding but is meant as a way to spur progress. The plan calls for several days of negotiations with Cohen present.
"We are working hard,'' Pash said Sunday, "and we're following the director's playbook, and we'll see what we come up with.''
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: the owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; a rookie wage scale; and benefits for retired players.
No team owners have been seen at the mediated sessions, but they're surely keeping up with what's happening - and at least one indicated optimism about the 2011 season in a roundabout way.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted Sunday: "T Minus 351 days 2 Sup Bowl kickoff in Indy...early predictions 4 participating teams???''