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NFL labor talks now a game of chicken

Updated: June 26, 2011 12:18AM

WASHINGTON — The $1 billion game of chicken is changing venues, with the NFL and the NFL Players Association standoff shifting from Washington to Minneapolis.

Neither side flinched after 14 days of mediation, so the union decertified and the owners locked out the players.

George Cohen, the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, didn’t have any formal authority, unlike the federal judge who will now shape the NFL’s immediate future.

That judge likely will be David Doty, whom the players favor and the owners dislike. He recently denied the owners access to $4 billion in television revenue — so-called lockout insurance — even if there are no games in 2011.

To compensate, the owners have been lawyering up, building a who’s-who legal team with remarkable credentials.

On Saturday, the league announced the retention of David Boies and Gregg Clement. Boies, who has been called “Corporate America’s No. 1 Hired Gun,” has powerful clients, including American Express, Oracle, Al Gore and filmmaker Michael Moore, among others. Clement served as the 43rd Solicitor General of the United States from June 2005 until June 2008, and he has argued more than 50 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

He has been then, done that

Already collecting fees is Bob Batterman, who players point to as one of the main reasons they believe the NFL’s plan all along was to lock them out.

“As the Bears’ player rep, I find that the [NFL] obviously wanted this to happen [because] they hired Bob Batterman two years ago,” kicker Robbie Gould said.

Batterman was the NHL’s ­labor attorney when it locked out players in 2004 for the season and eventually finalized a collective-bargaining agreement that included a salary cap.

The NFL’s team of attorneys will fight to protect the financial records of each of its 32 teams, which the players have demanded if they are going to consider the owners’ request for $1 billion. When NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and his group left the building Friday, they provided the owners 15 minutes to produce the financials they had long been seeking.

Secrecy is the deal-breaker

Even among the owners, financial information is sensitive, coded and constructed to ensure anonymity for most clubs. Owners have made clear the request is a deal-breaker.

There has been an assumption that the court could make all of that information public, but William Gould said that isn’t necessarily the case. The former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, Gould said what happens with the “books” is left to the discretion of the judge, who could opt to not allow the players to see the numbers and only review them himself.

The lines have been drawn between people who just days ago were employees of the same club.

“We’ll leave it in the hands of the people that it should be, in the courts,” Robbie Gould said. “We didn’t want to get to this situation. .  .  . But the owners brought us to this point.”

Added Bears president Ted Phillips, “We’re disappointed in the need to take this step, but it is necessary for the long-term health of our league.”

Phillips said he believes the “agreement will be reached at the bargaining table.”

But neither side will flinch until a ruling forces them to make concessions.

Meanwhile, the clock toward the 2011 season is ­counting down. Staffers, assistant coaches and others are paying close attention — while some are already paying the price with wage cuts and furloughs — as rich lawyers, players and owners sort through this collective mess.

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