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League, union agree to federal mediation

George Cohen, Don Garber Bob Foose

From left, George Cohen, Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Don Garber, MLS Commissioner and Bob Foose, Executive Director, MLS Players Union proposes a toast in Washington, Saturday, March 20, 2010, after Major League Soccer and its players reached an agreement on a five-year contract. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)


Last March, Liz Mullen of SportsBusiness Journal first raised the possibility of federal mediation as a solution for the current labor mess.

“We have no plans for mediation,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Mullen at the time, “and we are a long way from having to even consider it. The goal is for our negotiations to be successful before reaching that point.”

And they’ve now reached that point.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has announced that the league and the NFLPA have agreed to allow the agency to be involved in the process.

“I have had separate, informal discussions with the key representatives of the National Football League and the National Football League Players Association during the course of their negotiations for a successor collective bargaining agreement,” agency director George H. Cohen said in a written statement, according to Mark Maske of the Washington Post. “At the invitation of the FMCS, and with the agreement of both parties, the ongoing negotiations will now be conducted under my auspices in Washington, D.C., commencing Friday, February 18.

“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.”

Mediation is a non-binding process, which has become increasingly popular over the last three decades as a tool for resolving civil litigation. Basically, courts require the parties to give it a try, and that they proceed in good faith. In this case, the parties have decided to do it on their own.

A mediator has no power to issue rulings or resolve disputes or otherwise say or do anything to force an agreement. But a mediator has the ability to speak candidly to the parties about the weaknesses of their position and the realities of the predicament and to serve as a devil’s advocate of sorts in order to get each side to be more objective.

Last year, Cohen helped Major League Soccer strike a deal with its union.

There’s another huge benefit to the process. The presence of a mediator will make guys like Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler less inclined to say or do things that could be viewed as problematic or belligerent.

The fact that the two sides have agreed to allow a third party to be involved indicates a willingness to try to strip away the personalities and the other impediments in the hopes of finally getting to the issues and getting a deal done. And it allows the mediator to, if necessary, ask someone who acts up to leave the room.

Cohen’s first task? Finding a solution to the parties’ apparent impasse regarding whether and to what extent the league will open the books.

The process begins tomorrow. Whether or not they’ll ever agree, the fact that they’ve agreed to use mediation means that they at least agree on something.