Even as NFL officials urged union leaders to return to the negotiating table Monday, it's becoming increasingly clear the next meeting between the two sides embroiled in the labor dispute will take place in a Minnesota courtroom.
The league filed a motion asking a federal judge in Minneapolis to keep its lockout in place, arguing the union's decision to decertify was a tactical maneuver meant to manipulate the law.
New England quarterback Tom Brady and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning were among the plaintiffs in the antitrust lawsuit brought March 11 after players and owners could not agree on a new collective bargaining agreement. That followed two weeks of negotiations in front of a federal mediator.
The players dissolved their union and filed an injunction to halt the lockout imposed by owners hours after the talks broke down.
An April 6 hearing date has been set in front of Judge Susan Nelson. If Nelson rules in favor of the players, the league likely would operate under last year's terms - with no salary cap and unrestricted free agency for players with six years of experience.
If Nelson agrees with the league's contention that the decertification is a sham, the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 would continue.
"We don't accept the claim that the union has decertified. We don't believe that that has, in fact, taken place," Jeff Pash, NFL executive vice president and lead negotiator, said at the owners meetings. "We believe it's a tactical move by the NFL Players Association.
"We believe they're continuing to function as a labor organization. We believe they intend to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with us."
Those talks will not occur between the NFL and the lawyers representing the players' class action suit. Pash indicated the league will not negotiate with class counsel, although it was a settlement in Reggie White's antitrust suit in 1993 that led to the recently expired CBA.
In addition to its court filing Monday, the league previously filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over the union's decertification.
Despite the legal maneuvers, Pash agreed with Kansas City linebacker Mike Vrabel's suggestion to get the attorneys out of the way and let the owners and players talk directly.
The union contends players had little conversation with the decision-making owners during the last days of negotiations with mediator George Cohen.
"When you're in a hurry to get out of the room and file lawsuits, it's understandable why there's not a lot of conversation," Pash said. "That's a fact."
Speaking to reporters during the first full day of the meetings at the Roosevelt Hotel, Pash said he believes resuming talks in front of Cohen would be productive.
"Perhaps that would be a way of re-starting. But the critical thing is our commitment is to negotiate," Pash said. "We're not going to solve this in litigation. All that's going to do is delay a solution. And I think we made some real progress over the course of the mediation.
"Obviously, we didn't conclude an agreement. But we certainly got closer on a number of important issues."
Pash said owners were receptive to players' health and safety concerns, agreeing to limits to organized team activities and full-pad practices. The changes were discussed in response to the owners' proposal for an 18-game regular-season schedule, a plan the players opposed.
Pash said the practice restrictions would be in effect for a 16-game schedule, as well. Pash also outlined the owners' proposal to extend insurance coverage for retired players beyond the five-year period currently in place.
But the two sides cannot agree on how to split the $9billion in annual revenues raked in by the country's most popular sport.
"The bottom line is it's going to be resolved at the negotiation table. That's where it's going to be resolved. The question is when," Colts owner Jim Irsay said. "It's all about getting back to negotiations. Everyone knows that they're a union and they're going to negotiate that way."
While the rhetoric has increased along with the legal moves and counter-moves, Pash is confident a deal will get done.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's not a trust issue. It's not a war, it's not a 'one side is good and the other side is bad.' It's not a morality play," he said. "We have a business issue, we're going to resolve it and we're going to get back on the field."