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Labor talks enter critical stretch

Roger Goodell, DeMaurice Smith,

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, left, and National Football League Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, right, speak to the media outside of the Ritz-Carlton hotel after addressing players during the NFLPA rookie symposium on Wednesday, June 29, 2011 in Sarasota, Fla. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

AP

As the labor talks continue on Thursday with the owners and key players returning, one thing is now clear.

Like the rapture guy’s May 21 misadventures, my prediction of an agreement in principle by June 30 likely won’t come to fruition. (Then again, June 30 ain’t over yet.) The bigger concern is whether a deal will even get done in time to save the full preseason.

Make no mistake about it. Those meaningless games are very meaningful to the NFL, given the money that will be paid by the networks (starting with NBC on August 7) for the privilege of broadcasting an exhibition game that will outperform whatever baseball has to offer that same night, even if it’s Red Sox-Yankees.

Once the league starts to lose preseason games and the money that goes along with them, the deal that’s currently on the table won’t be as good, and the achievement of an agreement will be harder.

And so, if a deal is going to be worked out, it needs to come in the next couple of weeks. That means both sides will need to address the issues that are giving the other side concern. The phone call between NFLPA* executive director DeMaurice Smith and select Pro Bowlers was aimed at getting out the message that the owners could be taking advantage of the players’ sense that a deal is inevitable. This allows the owners to take a hard line on various collateral issues, confident that the players will cave. Thus, Roger Goodell need to get the owners to not do that.

From the owners’ perspective, the concern is that the players’ lawyers are trying to run out the clock, obsessing over irrelevant and/or ludicrous issues in the hopes that the preseason -- and the $800 million generated by it -- will be lost, making it harder to get a deal done, allowing the lawyers to pursue their visions of a multi-billion-dollar antitrust verdict. Thus, De Smith needs to get the lawyers to not do that.

It sounds easy, but it will require real leadership from both men. Here’s hoping that the relationship they’ve forged in recent weeks will fuel their desire to work out a deal that works for everyone.

Here’s also hoping that real urgency will be demonstrated in the coming days, with marathon talks resuming no later than July 5 and continuing until an agreement is finalized. The time for twiddling thumbs and two days per week of meetings has ended; the fans want to see a legitimate desire to work this out, and it soon will mean working every day, around the clock, with limited breaks and maximum caffeine.