The NFL owners have unanimously agreed on a deal to settle the lockout, putting the ball in the players' hands, but the union says it will not be rushed or pressured into signing.
Agreement to end NFL lockout is in the players hands now
The NFL owners chatted much of the day, polished off a couple of meals, then overwhelmingly approved a deal to end the lockout.
Only one problem: the players are not ready to join them at the table.
So the most popular sport in the United States remains in labour limbo a bit longer.
The owners voted 31-0 on Thursday, with the Oakland Raiders abstaining, for a 10-year deal to settle the impasse, but any celebration among fans was quickly snuffed.
The players declined to vote on the proposal, at least right away, and a rash of Twitter messages left little doubt that plenty of work remains before any blocking and tackling begins.
"NFL players! Stay strong! We are still fighting for past, present and future players. We will vote when they give us something to vote on!" wrote Ryan Clark of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "Owners tried to pull a fast 1 on us making the fans believe it's because of US the players … Not this time buddy," wrote Robert Johnson of the Tennessee Titans.
Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, and the owners expressed hope that their vote would lead to a speedy resolution to the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987.
They called it an equitable deal that improves player safety and allows the sport to prosper even more. "It is time to get back to football," Goodell said during an evening news conference at an Atlanta-area hotel.
The players said they will not be rushed into a deal, even with the owners insisting that time is running out to get in a full schedule of four preseason games and 16 regular-season contests.
Already, one game is sure to be lost: the league called off the Hall of Fame exhibition opener, set for August 7, between Chicago and St Louis.
"It's been long and at times has been very, very difficult," said Jerry Richardson, the owner of the Carolina Panthers, of the negotiations. "We're confident that the players and the teams have arrived at a good place. We think we have a fair, balanced agreement."
But George Wilson, the player representative for the Buffalo Bills, called the vote by the owners and subsequent news conference "an attempt to break the spirits of our men and to fracture the solidarity that we've exemplified thus far".
He said the deal approved by the owners included provisions the players have not seen, which is why no vote was taken during a conference call on Thursday night. "Ultimately, the guys felt like this thing is being force-fed to us, that it's being shoved down our throats," Wilson said.
Mark Murphy, the Green Bay Packers president, said no one was trying to pressure players into accepting an owner-friendly framework for dividing more than US$9 billion (Dh33bn) in annual revenues.
"We've negotiated," Murphy said. "We've been negotiating in good faith with the union. We reached agreement on all the key points. They're voting on the same thing that we ratified."
Not so, said DeMaurice Smith, chief of the NFL Players Association, who spoke with Goodell several times by phone during the day and was informed of the owners' vote before an official announcement went out.
It did not take long for Smith to fire off an e-mail to team representatives denying that it was a done deal.
"Issues that need to be collectively bargained remain open; other issues, such as workers' compensation, economic issues and end-of-deal terms, remain unresolved. There is no agreement between the NFL and the players at this time," Smith wrote.
Unhappy with the old collective bargaining agreement, owners exercised an opt-out clause three years ago, setting the stage for this labour dispute. The new deal does not contain an opt-out clause.
If players approve the agreement, team facilities would open today, and the new league year would begin Wednesday, with full free agency and the opening of training camps.
The old arrangement expired on March 11, when federally mediated negotiations fell apart, and the owners locked out the players hours later. Since then, teams have not been allowed to communicate with current NFL players, including those drafted in April, nor could they sign any free agents.
Teams also did not pay for players' health insurance.
Final issues involved how to set aside three pending court cases, including the antitrust lawsuit filed against the NFL in federal court in Minnesota by Tom Brady and nine other players. Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead negotiator, said the owners' understanding is that the case will be dismissed.
The proposed deal would make significant changes in off-season workout schedules, reducing team programs by five weeks and cutting "organised team activities" from 14 to 10 sessions.
Current players would be able to stay in the medical plan for life.
If the players approve the deal, the NFL would get back to work right away. But first, the players must approve the deal.