WASHINGTON - America's most popular sport was plunged into crisis as negotiations between the NFL and the player's union collapsed on Friday, triggering instant legal action from the biggest names in the sport that threatens to disrupt next season and cost billions of dollars.
Any hope of a resolution to the drawn-out labor dispute evaporated when the feuding sides abandoned their negotiations after failing to reach agreement on several issues, including how to carve up more than $9 billion in annual revenue.
The union immediately filed a court action to dissolve itself, allowing the players to take individual action, and quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees quickly filed antitrust lawsuits against the NFL to prevent a lockout.
"I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for us," said Brees. "(But) we have a responsibility and at some point you just have to stand up for what is right."
The NFL said it was confident an agreement could still be reached and called on the union to return to the bargaining table.
"Ultimately, this is going to be negotiated at the negotiating table," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
"They've decided to pursue another strategy and that is their choice. But we will be prepared to negotiate an agreement and get something done that is fair to the players and fair to the clubs."
Talks crumbled when both sides were unable to reach an agreement over a range of sticking points that also included a proposal to increase the regular season schedule to 18 games from 16, the implementation of a rookie wage scale and pensions for former players.
They twice extended negotiations last week in the hope of finding a compromise but the federal mediator who oversaw the 17 days of talks said it was clear they were no closer to a resolution.
"It is (my) considered judgment ... that no constructive purpose would be served by requesting the parties continue mediation at this time," said George Cohen.
Under the current agreement signed in 2006, owners received a guaranteed $1 billion of the annual revenue while the rest was split, with players getting around 60 percent and the owners 40 percent.
The league and owners wanted to increase their automatic cut by another $1 billion, arguing that operational costs had risen since the last deal was struck.
But the players wanted to maintain the status quo, claiming the owners had failed to provide them with enough financial evidence to prove they needed a bigger slice of the profits.
"Financial transparency would help us reach a compromise," Smith said.
NFL owners blamed the union for the breakdown, saying they had agreed to a range of concessions.
"I never really got the feeling in the past weeks that they were serious about negotiating," New York Giants owner John Mara said. "And it's unfortunate because that's not what collective bargaining is all about."