SARASOTA, Fla. — NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and players’ union chief DeMaurice Smith took questions Wednesday at a symposium for NFL rookies, who wanted to know the same thing as everyone else unhappy about the league’s labor dispute.
When is it going to end?
Goodell and Smith didn’t say. But the union took their joint appearance as a positive sign.
“That’s really the significance of this,” NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah said. “There’s a lockout happening now, but we’ve got to look forward and consider the necessity to have a positive working relationship with the league.”
The commissioner and his counterpart in negotiations met in Minneapolis before flying together to Sarasota on Tuesday night. After a joint breakfast Wednesday, they talked for an hour with 155 rookies.
“We were taking a break (from negotiations) because we felt it was important to be down here with the players,” Goodell said. “This is an important few days. We’re going to get back to work.”
He then climbed into the back seat of an SUV alongside Smith, and they headed for the airport to return to Minnesota. Talks there are scheduled there through Friday, raising hopes a new collective bargaining agreement can be worked out so the season can proceed as planned, with training camps scheduled to open in about three weeks.
The fifth set of “secret” negotiations involve Goodell, Smith and their staffs, but no owners or players. Such high-level meetings have been key to previous labor agreements, particularly when the late Gene Upshaw ran the players’ association and Paul Tagliabue was commissioner.
Goodell and Smith did not seem to have the same kind of rapport, but have been spending more time together in recent weeks. Smith said both sides are “continuing to work hard” to end the four-month-old lockout, which has put the 2011 season in jeopardy.
Smith called the question-and-answer session with rookies “important to ensure our young men appreciated how important we think these few days are. … I’m thrilled Roger could come down with us and talk to the rookies in a very good, direct way.”
Atallah said a lot of the questions from players were related to the lockout. He said Goodell and Smith answered as best they could given a court order to maintain confidentiality about the negotiations.
“It was important that the players see this is not personal,” Atallah said. “It was important that the players see that (Goodell and Smith) can work through their differences in a constructive way, and that hopefully sooner rather than later they’ll be playing football.”
Among those speaking to the rookies Tuesday was former Giants and Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress, released from prison this month after spending nearly two years in jail on a weapon possession charge.
“Plaxico spoke candidly about the impact of personal decisions on a professional career,” Atallah said.
The two-day symposium covered proper behavior on and off the field, financial education and planning, dealing with media, and other information to prepare rookies for a future in the NFL. The union scheduled the event after the league canceled its annual rookie symposium because of the lockout.
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