The chief negotiator for the National Football League club owners said today he has no plans to lock out players as a labor negotiating tactic during summer training camp or the exhibition season.
But in the days immediately before the start of the regular season, Jack Donlan, who heads the NFL's Management Council, said a lockout is a possibility. Donlan said the owners will base their decision on whether to let the season begin on the likelihood of a successfully negotiated contract and "our assessment on how the players feel."
Donlan, who met with the six members of his executive committee here at a regularly scheduled meeting of the NFL owners, said he does not want the league to "fund a strike" by permitting the players to begin playing and drawing paychecks during the regular season.
"That was the mistake the baseball owners made," said Donlan, referring to last summer's seven-week baseball strike that began after one-third of the season had already been played. He said NFL players are paid 1-16th of their annual pay after each of the 16 regular season games.
Donlan and members of the Management Council are scheduled to meet Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington with representatives of the NFL Players Association. Donlan and Ed Garvey, executive director of the Players Association, say the sides are widely separated in terms of coming to an agreement. The current contract between the NFL and the NFLPA expires July 15.
"We certainly haven't made any progress if progress is to be measured by agreement on specific issues," Garvey said Tuesday in Washington. "Their style of bargaining is to demand language from us, ask questions about our proposal and then reject it."
But Garvey said he welcomed Donlan's statement.
"Now the players will know they can go to training camp and get in shape for the season. Maybe it's a sign that management is getting serious about bargaining and we won't have to have a strike or a lockout," he said.
At the core of Garvey's economic package is a demand that the players receive 55 percent of gross revenues generated by the NFL. The money would be distributed according to a formula that would reward players for performance and seniority.
That concept has been strongly opposed by the NFL owners and the Management Council, and today Donlan termed the plan an idea "that would turn the system upside down."
"We're not going to buy a percentage of the gross, any percentage," Donlan said.
During the summer, Donlan said, NFL management will try to keep close tabs on the strength of union sentiment among the players and this will be a key factor in deciding strategy in September.
In the last few months, the Managment Council's newsletter, "The NFL and You," which is mailed to all the players, has featured prominent news accounts of players who are critical of the union and Garvey and/or who say they would not support a strike. Among them have been Drew Pearson of the Dallas Cowboys, Jim Zorn and Steve Largent of the Seattle Sea Hawks, Lynn Swann of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Joe Klecko of the New York Jets, the NFL defensive player of the year.
Donlan sidestepped questions today on whether the NFL would attempt to play its games in the event of a strike. "The question would be, 'Can we put competitive football teams on the field?' " he said.
Nevertheless, his decision not to call a lockout makes it likely that training camps and the NFL exhibition season will be uninterrupted. Garvey has said repeatedly he will not call a strike during training camp and has hinted broadly that the most effective time for a strike would be once the regular season has begun.
He said tonight, however, that some players have felt a strike during the late exhibition season might be a possibility.
Regarding the percentage of the gross proposal, he repeated a statement from Gene Upshaw of the Oakland Raiders, union president, that "the concept is etched in stone."
Pressed on what he would do if the Management Council were to offer a lucrative package that was not a percentage of the gross, Garvey said, "Any time you're negotiating, that's what it's all about. You go into a lawsuit and you've got to win or lose. You go into negotiations trying to get an agreement that both sides can live with."
Garvey discounted publicity over players who have been critical of the union, arguing that "the way we look at it, we're as strong as our strongest link because the league is so totally interdependent."
In other business today, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle said the league will not seek during this session of Congress any antitrust legislation broader than a bill introduced last month by Rep Fortney H. (Pete) Stark (D-Calif.). That bill would effectively nullify a court decision that cleared the way for the Oakland Raiders to move to the Lost Angeles coliseum.
He said the owners were unanimous in their support of an appeal of the Oakland decision, handed down May 8 by a U.S. District Court jury in Los Angeles.