When talks between negotiators for the National Football League owners and the NFL Players Association recessed last week, there was no suggestion of a possible settlement. Yet, both sides said the meetings were not fruitless.

"I think we've cleared the air," said Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL's Management Council, the league's labor negotiating arm. "They now know unequivocally that the owners will never buy their proposal on percentage of gross revenues."

Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFLPA, said, "I think we made some progress. They heard what we had to say. We sent them an unequivocal message that we're going to get a percentage of the gross. That's our mandate and that's what we're going to get."

Progress?

Less than five weeks from the July 15 expiration of the contract between the NFL and the NFLPA, the sides remain light years apart, with fundamental philosophical divisions that appear to leave no room for a compromise.

Unlike more traditional labor-management disputes that center on wages and fringe benefits, the key issue in the football negotiations is the union's demand that the league turn over 55 percent of its annual gross income to a trust fund that would be used for player salaries.

With the NFL's income soaring at an astronomical rate--it could easily reach $600 million this year--Garvey and the players are known to feel the only way they can get a fair share is to negotiate a wage package that is tied to what the league makes.

Union President Gene Upshaw of the Oakland Raiders has said that as far as the NFLPA is concerned, percentage of gross revenues is "etched in stone."

Owners are equally adamant that the NFL is by far the best-managed professional sports league in the nation and they intend to keep it that way. They have no intention of giving players the voice in the league's operation they say would inevitably follow agreement on a percentage of gross revenues.

"This is the most successful sports entertainment business around, and the figures prove it. So we don't want to fudge it up too much," says Donlan. "Why should we chuck a system that is working?"

Last Monday, the union handed Donlan its first comprehensive pay proposal, based on 55 percent of gross revenues. The money would go into a trust fund to be managed by a corporate trustee, probably a bank, with an auditor and an arbitrator to settle disputes. Seventy percent of the money would go for base salaries, computed on the basis of seniority; 20 percent would reward performance on the field, and the remaining 10 percent would cover costs of administering the fund and severance pay.

Average salary would increase from the current $80,000 to $90,000 to approximately $150,000, but an outstanding player could more than double his base pay through the performance incentive proposal. Those incentives would reward players on the basis of number of downs played; Pro Bowl, Super Bowl and playoff participation, and being one of the top players at a given position.

Because of the NFL's system of revenue sharing, this is the only way the players can ensure full participation in the league's enormous financial success, they say. Under that system, clubs share equally television, playoff and Super Bowl revenues. Gate receipts are split 60-40 between home and visiting teams.

Thus, argues the NFLPA, there is no economic incentive for the owners to outbid each other for the game's superstars, as there is in major league baseball and the National Basketball Association.

The NFL responds it will not go the route of basketball and baseball, both of which have several clubs losing money.

Nevertheless, says Donlan, if the union wants a wage scale, he'll entertain a proposal, but not one tied to percentage of gross revenues. The package that the NFLPA presented Monday was unacceptable for that and a number of other reasons, he says.

There are no new negotiations scheduled, and it appears unlikely there will be an agreement before the contract expires.

It is more likely that the operative date is Sept. 12, the date the regular season begins. Donlan says he has no plans to lock the players out during training camp or exhibition season if there is no contract. Garvey has said several times a strike will be most effective once the regular season begins. Monday was unacceptable for that and a number of other reasons, he says.

There are no new negotiations scheduled, and it appears unlikely there will be an agreement before the contract expires.

It is more likely that the operative date is Sept. 12, the date the regular season begins. Donlan says he has no plans to lock the players out during training camp or exhibition season if there is no contract. Garvey has said several times a strike will be most effective once the regular season begins.