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Colts owner wants negotiations, not litigation

March 14, 2011

Jim Irsay thought NFL owners and players were getting closer to a new collective bargaining agreement last week.

Now the Colts owner is pleading for everyone to get out of the courts and back to the negotiating table.

Irsay said Monday he's "optimistic" the league will not lose the 2011 season or next year's Super Bowl in Indianapolis because of the current lockout, though he is "disappointed" that players have resorted to making their case through the legal system.

"I think we have our differences, but I feel there's a framework for a deal," Irsay said. "I was disappointed Friday because I felt when we came with another proposal, we really had a chance to continue to mediate, negotiate and do the things to get a deal done. There's work to get done, it can get done, but it's not going to get done through the courts."

Irsay spent 45 minutes fielding a wide array of questions about the lockout and insisted little will change at the team complex.

Though players and team officials are barred from contacting one another and players cannot use the team's workout facilities, Irsay insisted team employees would not be treated any differently during the league's first work stoppage since 1987.

That means no furloughs, no layoffs and no pay cuts.

"I look at someone who's making $40,000 or $50,000 a year, who has rent to pay, and I just don't see it for me, as an owner, to be asking them for anything," he said.

Irsay doesn't feel quite the same way about the players' association, though.

On Friday night, Irsay chided the dissolution of the NFLPA, calling it a "sham." The weekend did not change Irsay's opinion.

"In terms of being decertified and that sort of thing, that is something where you have to negotiate in good faith and you can't decertify with the intention of coming back and certifying," he said. "That's something under law that you cannot do."

Decertification means players no longer are protected under labor law but instead are now allowed to take their chances in federal court under antitrust law.

Players, meanwhile, insist they were never close to an agreement last week.

George Atallah, the top spokesman for the league's players, said Monday that the perception the two sides were close to a deal was inaccurate. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees even called the owners' latest proposal "all a show, with no real intent to get a deal done."

Irsay disputes the notion and contends the players turned down a "good" deal.

The impact of the lockout has already created some odd twists in Indy.

Colts Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday has been a regular participant in negotiations, and Irsay spent part of Monday's news conference describing the close ties he has with Saturday.

Four-time league MVP Peyton Manning is among the group of players who also have filed a request for an injunction against the owners in U.S. District Court in Minnesota. The goal: stopping the lockout.

The Colts also used the exclusive franchise tag on Manning last month, a move that would normally prevent him from negotiating with other teams. But the players contend franchise tags no longer exist, a point Irsay strongly disputes.

"I have never seen a situation where the tag is in jeopardy," he said. "What sort of situation can develop, I don't want to project on that. The No. 1 dynamic is you want to get a long-term deal done for Peyton, and we've offered the highest contract that's ever been paid in the National Football League. So, again, I see things getting done."

Is he taking any of this personally?

Not a chance.

"Peyton, Jeff Saturday are very close friends of mine and this isn't about us against them," Irsay said. "However, I do believe when the lawyers get involved and you get away from mediation and negotiation, it's not productive. On Friday, we were left with no one to negotiate with."

The most recent CBA was signed in 2006. Owners exercised a clause in 2008 that let them opt out.

League owners are seeking a greater percentage of the roughly $9 billion in annual revenue that is shared with the players. Among the other significant topics in negotiations are a rookie wage scale; the owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; and benefits for retired players.

And Irsay, who is in one of the league's smallest markets, is convinced it can all be worked out — if they keep talking.

"I have great optimism that we will have a season, we will have a Super Bowl," Irsay said. "But you can't just say optimism will get things done. There's a lot of heavy lifting that has to get done."

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