National Football League (NFL) owners voted on Thursday to approve a new collective bargaining agreement with players, paving the way for an end to a lockout that has left America's most popular sport in limbo.
The 32 owners, meeting in Atlanta, voted overwhelmingly to support a 10-year deal with the players that could resolve their bitter labor dispute and ensure the start of the 2011 regular season is not delayed.
"We are pleased to announce that our clubs have approved the terms of a long-term negotiated agreement with the NFL players," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. "It includes many positive changes that emerged from a spirit of compromise rooted in doing what is best for the game and players."
According to the NFL, the Hall of Fame game scheduled for August 7 between the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams will be canceled and the preseason could begin August 11, contingent on timely ratification of the agreement by the players.
But the lockout, which began in March after talks between the feuding sides collapsed and triggered tit-for-tat court action, remained in place, at least temporarily, until the players also agreed to support the proposal.
"Hopefully we can all work quickly, expeditiously and get this agreement done," said Goodell. "It is time to get back to football. That is what everybody here wants to do."
Player representatives were due to hold a conference call later on Thursday to decide their next move, but the main issue was whether to recertify the players' union, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), which dissolved when the talks collapsed.
The players must agree for the union to be recertified before they can vote on whether to join the owners in approving the new collective bargaining agreement.
While players were expected to approve the recertification, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith told reporters in Washington it was a key issue that should not be rushed.
"Here in America, every time an employee makes that decision about whether he wants to be a part of a union, it is something that is serious, significant and something that should be done in a very sober way," said Smith.
"The decision to decertify was important because at the time we were a real union. And the decision for our players, as men, to come back as a union is going to be an equally serious and very sober one that they have to make."
The dispute, dubbed as a row between billionaires and millionaires squabbling over a fortune, has drawn criticism from U.S. President Barack Obama at a time when thousands of families were struggling just to make ends meet.
Although NFL players are among the best paid sportsmen on the planet and each of the 32 clubs was on the latest Forbes Magazine list of the world's 50 richest sporting teams, neither side could reach agreement on a range of issues centered around how they should divide more than $9 billion in annual revenues, a figure that was projected to double by 2016.
The players, led by high-profile quarterback Tom Brady, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL and its owners, who responded by imposing the lockout.
The matter has been in and out of the courts for months, with judges urging both sides to sort out their differences through mediation, but was teetering toward a critical stage with the preseason due to start next month and the regular season scheduled to kick off in September.
"We feel very good about it. We are confident the players and teams have arrived at a good plan," Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson told reporters. "I believe we have a fair and balanced agreement. I think we ended up in a very good place."
(Additional reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Frank Pingue)
Copyright © 2011, Reuters