Barry Wilner / Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- The NFL and its players' union agreed Thursdayto mediation in their labor dispute, two weeks before thecollective bargaining agreement expires.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independentU.S. government agency, will oversee negotiations in Washingtonbeginning Friday.

After holding separate discussions with representatives from theleague and the union, FMCS director George H. Cohen said both sidesagreed to have the agency get involved in the stalled talks.

Negotiations broke down last week, leading to the cancellationof one planned session. The players are expecting the owners tolock them out if the CBA expires on March 3 without a newagreement.

'Due to the extreme sensitivity of these negotiations andconsistent with the FMCS's long-standing practice, the agency willrefrain from any public comment concerning the future scheduleand/or the status of those negotiations until further notice,'Cohen said.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told The Associated Press in ane-mail: 'We are now in mediation.'

In a statement, NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said: 'The NFLPAhas always focused on a fair collective bargaining agreementthrough negotiations. We hope that this renewed effort, throughmediation, will help the players and owners reach a successfuldeal.'

The FMCS website says it 'provides free mediation services incontract negotiation disputes between employers and their unionizedemployees. All the parties have to do is make a request.'

Meditation is not binding, FMCS public affairs director JohnArnold said in a telephone interview.

'Our agency director will be working with the parties to assistthem in reaching a voluntary, mutually acceptable agreement,'Arnold said.

Cohen said in a statement that the negotiations will beconducted 'under my auspices.' He is no stranger to sportsmediation. He was involved in Major League Soccer talks with itsplayers' union and a work stoppage was avoided last year.

Cohen also has worked with the players' associations for MajorLeague 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 2004-05NHL lockout, and a 2005 dispute between the U.S. Soccer Federationand its players.

News of mediation is the first positive sign after severalmonths of infrequent negotiations. It also comes only days afterthe NFL filed an unfair labor practice charge against the NFLPAwith the National Labor Relations Board. Monday's filing said theunion 'consistently has failed to confer in good faith' duringnegotiations for a new contract and the union's 'conduct amountsto surface bargaining and an anticipatory refusal to bargain.'

Aiello told the AP the mediation would not have an effect on theNLRB complaint.

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

'Our ultimate goal is a new CBA,' Atallah wrote Thursday onhis Twitter feed. 'I will not discuss any details about the nextset of negotiations. We are observing a strict media blackout.'

Some players, however, were commenting moments after theannouncement.

'NFL and NFLPA agreeing to meet with a federal mediator is areal positive step,' Vikings tackle Bryant McKinnie said on hisTwitter account. 'Let's see if he can get them to make actualprogress.'

Added player agent Drew Rosenhaus: 'Exciting news to see theNFLPA & the Owners talking again through the mediation process -- aproductive step in the right direction!'

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