“What I tell them,” Agnone said, “is that this will be processed in court. But you have no control over that. You have to control what you can, and what you can control is that you must be ready to go when this thing gets started again; get in the best possible shape and the best possible situation so you’ll be ready for the first day of the season.

“If you listen to what ‘Dee’ [DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association] said over the last two years, he said, ‘Save your money,’ and our guys have been diligent about doing that kind of thing. He also said we could be in for the long haul, so those guys are prepared in that respect.

“But the other way to be prepared is to be ready when we start. And we will start. I have no doubt about that. Even though [NFL] commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t understand some things about what’s going on right now, I agree with him on one very important point: This will be a negotiated settlement. It’s not going to come through the courts.”

Agnone’s comments were not based solely on what occurred in St. Louis last Friday. They were also based on what he heard when he spoke to representatives for both sides after last week’s impromptu meetings in Chicago.

Like most observers, Agnone considered the sessions the first evidence of progress. And while he doesn’t know how the Eighth Circuit will rule or what impact its decision will have on this season, he does believe there will be a 16-game season, even though the last two times the NFL had work stoppages (1982 and 1987) regular-season games were lost in each instance.

“So much has changed from that period until now,” Agnone said. “We have so many other revenue streams, and there are so many other things going on. We’ve been able to have labor peace for nearly 25 years, and at this point it would be ludicrous for the owners not only not to have labor peace but to have a situation where you have a profitable industry that you shut down for not a lot of particular reasons.”

Of course, NFL owners will tell you there are a lot of particular reasons, with revenue sharing at the heart of unresolved core economic issues. They weren’t happy with the collective bargaining agreement they signed in 2006 and opted out of it, going to an uncapped season last year before declaring a lockout in March. In the meantime, the courts have spoken — with players scoring a big victory in U.S. District Court in April and owners scoring a bigger win in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in May.

The expectation is that the NFL will prevail again when the Eighth Circuit rules on its motion for appeal of an earlier injunction, keeping the lockout in place. But in his closing remarks last week, presiding judge Kermit Bye recommended that the two sides try to settle out of court, urging them to reach an agreement before the Eighth Circuit makes a decision one won’t like.

“They’re not going to be able to resolve it on the court cases alone, no matter what,” Agnone said. “What we learned in ’82 and ’87 … and through the Reggie White settlement … is that it’s going to take a long time for an agreement to be put in place. In the meantime, the season could get away from us, and I don’t think anyone is foolish enough to think that can happen.”

It’s one thing to hope. It’s another to believe, and Agnone’s stubborn belief was reinforced by what he witnessed last week in St. Louis — and I’m not talking as much about what went on in the courtroom as what he saw and heard outside of it.

“Look, at one time both sides were trying to win the PR battle,” he said, “but that’s over because they both lost it. Seeing [New York Jets’ owner] Woody Johnson there was proof to me that they’re serious about making a deal.

“I think both sides know we’re a thriving industry. We’re not a distressed industry. And we’re not in a position where it’s broken or where anybody is claiming that it is malfunctioning. So the only way, I think, that we’re going to get anything resolved is to negotiate, and the only way we’re going to negotiate is to have people sitting down and getting together.”

That happened a week ago, and judging from the positive response it gained more meetings could … maybe should … happen again … and again … and again … until something substantive is gained, and the doors to NFL headquarters are re-opened. Agnone is convinced that something will occur, maybe sooner rather than later.

“So,” I said, “the sky really isn’t falling.”

“No,” Agnone said, “not this week it isn’t.”

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