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NFL owners approve labor deal; players have yet to vote

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Reporting from Atlanta — In a move that led to more confusion than clarity, NFL owners voted Thursday to approve a proposed labor agreement, putting a conditional end to the four-month-old lockout.

Less than an hour later, the notion that a deal has been struck was denied by DeMaurice Smith, head of the decertified players’ union. In an email to the 32 team players representatives that preceded their two-hour conference call, he wrote: “There is no agreement between the NFL and the players at this time.”

The owners remain hopeful that theirs was the first step to labor peace. By a 31-0 vote — with the Oakland Raiders abstaining — owners ratified a 10-year collective bargaining agreement hinging on the players reestablishing their union, and agreeing to a labor accord that also wipes out all existing litigation, by Tuesday.

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“There’s a sense of urgency to this,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “We want to have a full 2011 season that includes four preseason games.”

The first casualty of the time crunch: the Aug. 7 exhibition opener between Chicago and St. Louis — the culmination to a weekend of Hall of Fame ceremonies — was cancelled.

Under the terms of the yet-to-be-fully-approved deal, players will be able to return to their team facilities Saturday, and free agency will begin Wednesday.

In essence, the owners have unlocked the door and are holding it open, waiting for the players to walk through.

The proposed deal, which would run through the 2020 season, would feature a new compensation system for rookies — one that would pay top picks significantly less — and would assure players of an average of 47% of total revenue over the life of the agreement.

The regular season would be kept at 16 games, and several measures would be put in place to limit off-season workouts and the amount of practices in helmets and pads throughout the season. Players with expired contracts would be eligible for unrestricted free agency after four seasons, as opposed to the six required last year.

“We have not drawn a line in the sand here,” said Jeff Pash, the league’s top lawyer. “We are hoping that it will proceed expeditiously. We think that the incentives are very strong for everybody for that process to proceed expeditiously.”

Not every team was in agreement with the NFL’s decision on the deal or how revenues should be divided among the franchises. Amy Trask, the Raiders’ chief executive, said her club abstained from the vote because of “profound philosophical differences on a number of issues — both of a football and an economic nature.”

It was widely anticipated that the players would vote on the proposal Wednesday, but they did not do so because of unresolved issues, including how long it would take to re-form as a union. That vote didn’t come Thursday either, despite an evening conference call involving player representatives from the 32 teams.

Some players were more pointed in their critique of how things transpired Thursday. New Orleans running back Heath Evans tweeted: “The owners tried 2 slip many things n2 the CBA ‘they’ voted on that were NEVER agreed 2!”

In leaving their all-day meetings at an Atlanta airport hotel, league owners and executives looked more exhausted than exhilarated.

“These things, by their very nature, aren’t supposed to make you necessarily happy when you walk out the door. It was a negotiation,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “I don’t mean to sound negative, but it isn’t exactly like Christmas has come along here.”

Although the sides are thought to be in agreement on the major economic components of a deal, the players say they need time — perhaps as much as two weeks — to complete the process of re-forming as a union.

There is speculation that should the players instantly re-unionize, as the owners would have them do, it would only buttress the argument that their decertification was a sham. It would help prove the league’s argument that the players conveniently said they weren’t a union merely to gain leverage in the courtroom — break apart in a snap, re-form in a snap.

That would make it far more difficult to use the decertification strategy when the next labor deal comes up in 10 years.

So that could be the first skirmish in a battle that won’t truly be fought for a decade, when the next labor deal is negotiated.

There are other unresolved issues. Players are seeking $320 million in benefits that they were not paid in 2010, although that was the deal for an uncapped year that was negotiated by their union. Also, the players’ lawyers reportedly are looking for compensation for two of the name plaintiffs in the antitrust suit — New England guard Logan Mankins and San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson — in the form of free agency or a large cash settlement.

Neither of those issues is expected to be insurmountable, or enough to derail a deal projected to be worth in excess of $100 billion over 10 years.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesfarmer


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