What to make of NFL talks, Friday's hearing

News that NFL players and owners quietly resumed talks this week – away from cameras and attorneys – has created the first optimism of any kind since the league’s lockout began March 11.

But how big of a step is this really? My sense, and that of several other reporters following the labor fight, is that it’s a positive move – talking is better than not – but that a deal is still at least weeks away, if not longer. That's what I wrote today, and most of the other daily reports I read or watched had similar sentiments.

The most positive take I saw came from the Boston Globe’s Greg Bedard, who had some nice details and sources on both sides calling the talks a “very significant step.” While it was publicly acknowledged that these are settlement talks – something the players want (for legal reasons they like a legal settlement better than a traditional CBA) – Bedard reported that the NFLPA would reform as a union, giving owners something they want. Those are ancillary issues to the big one – money – but it shows the start of a give-and-take that we know will be needed to reach an agreement. Talks are expected to continue next week.

So what about today’s hearing?

According to reporters who were there in St. Louis (I’m in Center City) the players’ lawyers took the brunt of the tough questioning today, further indicating that the owners are likely to win this round in court. With owners seemingly having the upper hand, some think they will wait for a ruling and additional leverage before making a deal. A ruling will probably take weeks.

Still, waiting carries some risk. One judge, Kermit Bye, encouraged the sides to settle and said the panel might come up with a ruling that neither side likes. (It’s worth noting that Bye was outvoted 2-1 on previous rulings, though, so his clout is suspect).

For players, a deal now would require some backpedaling, but would assure them of getting their paychecks in the fall and might be their best chance to cut their losses before the court ruling really hurts them.

All told, today I’m cautiously optimistic. Though more cautious than optimistic. Talks can blow up at any time. I keep going back to something I’ve written here before: from the very start this dispute has played out exactly as legal and business experts predicted. Most said the two sides would test their legal muscles. Most said real talks wouldn’t start until around summer, when the regular season loomed and both sides saw something to lose on the horizon.

This was from a March 3 story in the Inquirer:

"That probably means haggling into the summer, with a deal growing more likely as regular-season preparations near.

"Then there's urgency," said Scott Rosner, a sports business professor at Penn's Wharton School."

That same story included predictions from several observers who said this fight – for all the rhetoric – isn’t big enough for owners and players to tear up their season. The issue, the division of money, isn’t as fundamental as the kind of issues that have cost other sports regular season games.

These were were well-reasoned predictions based on past precedent and came before the heated rhetoric started coloring everyone's thoughts.

The one way both sides really lose is if they start missing real games. That would cost both a lot of money. As I wrote in February, if there’s one thing we know, neither wants that.