NFL owners met Thursday to discuss — and possibly vote on — a tentative deal to end the lockout that began in March.
"I'm optimistic that we'll get approval," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said on his way into the session at a hotel near Atlanta's airport. "My understanding is that the owners will have the opportunity to ratify the agreement today, even if the players do not approve it today."
Commissioner Roger Goodell was at Thursday's session. The league has said it hopes to have a final agreement with players ready for ratification Thursday. At least 24 of 32 owners would need to OK the deal. If it's passed by both sides, team executives would be schooled later Thursday and Friday in Atlanta on the deal's guidelines and how to apply them; topics would include the 2011 NFL calendar, rookie salary system and new free agency rules.
Players had been expected to vote Wednesday on a full proposal to settle the labor dispute, but they did not.
A person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press there was agreement among player representatives from all 32 clubs on what items needed to be resolved before any offer would be accepted. A second person, also speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks are supposed to be secret, said those players gave what was termed "conditional approval" of the proposal — as it stood Wednesday.
Even after all acceptable terms are established, a deal would lead to a collective bargaining agreement only if NFL Players Association team reps recommend re-establishing the group as a union, which must be approved by a majority vote of the 1,900 players. Those votes probably would be done by conference call.
In March, when talks broke down and the old CBA expired, the NFLPA said it was dissolving itself as a union and instead becoming a trade association, a move that allowed Tom Brady and other players to sue the league under antitrust law. Only a union can sign off on a CBA.
"We still have a lot of work to do," said Pro Bowl offensive lineman Tyson Clabo, who played for the Atlanta Falcons last season.
After the owners' labor committee met Wednesday, NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said the sides would keep talking in hopes of finalizing a deal that is expected to last 10 years, although even that was not 100 percent certain as of Wednesday evening.
"It's obviously a complicated agreement, but I think both sides are at the point where they can close, they should close, and we should be in a position to take votes," said Pash, the owners' lead negotiator.
Remaining issues are believed to include how to set aside three pending court cases: The players' antitrust lawsuit against the NFL in federal court in Minnesota; the TV networks case, in which players accused owners of setting up $4 billion in "lockout insurance," money that the league would receive even if there were no games played in 2011; and a collusion case, in which players said owners conspired to restrict salaries last offseason.
Ten players — including quarterbacks Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson and Patriots guard Logan Mankins — filed their antitrust suit March 11. That was the day the country's most popular sports league was thrown into limbo, and the owners locked out players hours later.
Also under discussion are how workman's compensation claims will be resolved and the players' demand that the NFL turn over $320 million in unpaid benefits from the 2010 season. Because there was no salary cap that season, the old CBA said NFL teams were not required to pay those benefits.
"I think that's the healthy outcome: to have a complete, comprehensive, global agreement that settles all the disputes and puts us on a path where we are going forward together as business partners, the way it should be, rather that going forward with one hand and fighting over something that should be in the past," Pash said.
If the four-month lockout — the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 — is going to end in time to keep the preseason completely intact, the players and owners almost certainly must ratify the deal this week. The St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears are scheduled to open the preseason Aug. 7 in the Hall of Fame game.
Asked Wednesday night whether that exhibition game will be played, Pash replied: "It would be pretty challenging."
AP National Writer Paul Newberry, AP Sports Writer Charles Odum and AP freelance writer Amy Jinkner-Lloyd in College Park, Ga., contributed to this to report.
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Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.