Barry Wilner / Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) -- The NFL and its players' union agreed Thursday to mediation in their labor dispute, two weeks before the collective bargaining agreement expires.
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independent U.S. government agency, will oversee negotiations in Washington beginning Friday.
After holding separate discussions with representatives from the league and the union, FMCS director George H. Cohen said both sides agreed to have the agency get involved in the stalled talks.
Negotiations broke down last week, leading to the cancellation of one planned session. The players are expecting the owners to lock them out if the CBA expires on March 3 without a new agreement.
"Due to the extreme sensitivity of these negotiations and consistent with the FMCS's long-standing practice, the agency will refrain from any public comment concerning the future schedule and/or the status of those negotiations until further notice," Cohen said.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told The Associated Press in an e-mail: "We are now in mediation."
In a statement, NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said: "The NFLPA has always focused on a fair collective bargaining agreement through negotiations. We hope that this renewed effort, through mediation, will help the players and owners reach a successful deal."
The FMCS website says it "provides free mediation services in contract negotiation disputes between employers and their unionized employees. All the parties have to do is make a request."
Meditation is not binding, FMCS public affairs director John Arnold said in a telephone interview.
"Our agency director will be working with the parties to assist them in reaching a voluntary, mutually acceptable agreement," Arnold said.
Cohen said in a statement that the negotiations will be conducted "under my auspices." He is no stranger to sports mediation. He was involved in Major League Soccer talks with its players' union and a work stoppage was avoided last year.
Cohen also has worked with the players' associations for Major League Baseball and the NBA, and was an advisor to the NHL players' union before joining the FMCS.
The FMCS also became involved in negotiations during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, and a 2005 dispute between the U.S. Soccer Federation and its players.
News of mediation is the first positive sign after several months of infrequent negotiations. It also comes only days after the NFL filed an unfair labor practice charge against the NFLPA with the National Labor Relations Board. Monday's filing said the union "consistently has failed to confer in good faith" during negotiations for a new contract and the union's "conduct amounts to surface bargaining and an anticipatory refusal to bargain."
Aiello told the AP the mediation would not have an effect on the NLRB complaint.
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.
"Our ultimate goal is a new CBA," Atallah wrote Thursday on his Twitter feed. "I will not discuss any details about the next set of negotiations. We are observing a strict media blackout."
Some players, however, were commenting moments after the announcement.
"NFL and NFLPA agreeing to meet with a federal mediator is a real positive step," Vikings tackle Bryant McKinnie said on his Twitter account. "Let's see if he can get them to make actual progress."
Added player agent Drew Rosenhaus: "Exciting news to see the NFLPA & the Owners talking again through the mediation process -- a productive step in the right direction!"