To assure the appearance of a united front against their rebellious slaves, the pro football masters threatened fines of maybe $500,000 against any owner who commits the sin of speaking forthrightly. So before the Redskins' "Welcome Home" luncheon the other day, Jack Kent Cooke called the NFL office for instructions on how far he could go. Not far, they said.

Cooke went far enough to deliver an urgent message that ought to reach the ears of the other 27 owners.

The players deserve more money, Cooke said.

Not 55 percent of the gross. Never that, he said.

But more money. Much more money, he said.

And more benefits. Many more benefits, he said.

On the face of it, Cooke's speech is nothing new. The owners' labor negotiator, Jack Donlan, armed with orders from the six owners' representatives on the management council, said in January that the players ought to get substantially more money. The importance of Cooke's speech is not in the lyrics, but in the melody.

Here is an owner who doesn't like what is going on. He doesn't like the owners' refusal to offer the players a meaningful proposal as basis for negotiations to avert a strike.

Why else sing a song so sweet to a player's ears? Why else choose so public an occasion -- a luncheon for nearly 2,000 people -- to declare it in the national interest to play football on schedule?

If we've heard the words before, we certainly haven't heard them from an owner such as Cooke, once described by an associate as "probably the hardest of the hardliners in this strike business."

No less true for being unspoken, the message implicit in Cooke's speech seems to be that even a hardliner wants Donlan and the management council to damn well get a move on. It is not enough for them to say the players ought to get more money; they must propose a way to get it to them. The NFL's restrictions of free speech wouldn't let Cooke suggest how the money ought to be delivered, and Cooke refuses to answer media questions on such specifics.

Yet his Welcome Home speech was welcome to anyone who sees the foolishness in the current labor-management impasse. As Cooke made clear, both sides are at fault. The players have asked that55 percent of the league's gross revenue simply be handed over to the union for dispersal, while the owners have rewritten some free agency rules and raised the minimum salaries.

Beyond those first lame-brained proposals, the adversaries have gone nowhere.

Come Monday in Chicago, the players will vote to set a deadline for a strike if the owners refuse to negotiate seriously.

Good for the players.

They should strike. Practically, they have no freedom of job movement, no leverage to reach their fair market value and no assurance that management wants to pass on to them a fair share of the massive profits their work produces.

Two or three NFL teams claim to have lost money last season. How this is possible with all the TV loot falling out of the sky, no one knows, but let's accept the claims as the truth. That leaves 25 or 26 teams making a profit.

Now move ahead to this season, when each team will receive $14 million in TV money. That is $8 million more than last year.

Now, an NFL owner did nothing in particular to get $8 million more money this year. It's as if he were walking to the bank with the oil well deposits and found $8 million on the sidewalk.

With such a windfall of money, you would think the owners would realize the propriety of sharing the $8 million with the employes whose work convinced the TV people to hand it over. There's this, too: when the current TV contract expires in five years, the NFL probably will put together its own cable-TV and pay-TV networks. Today's $14 million a year will be small potatoes then.

So the right thing to do, as Cooke suggests, is to share the bonanza with the players.

Instead, the management council seems to have told Donlan, "Not a nickel more to the hired help."

At the same time, the NFL sent Commissioner Pete Rozelle to Capitol Hill to testify in support of dubious legislation that would exempt the league from antitrust laws. Such legislation would effectively give the NFL dictatorial control of cities as well as players.

Small wonder, then, that players feel a strike is their only recourse against owners who refuse to negotiate with them but send the commissioner to Congress in search of new laws to subjugate them.

What needs to be done here, and maybe Cooke's speech will cause some enlightened owner to scream it into the ears of the management council, is to make the players an offer that isn't 55 percent of the gross but is respectable.

The owners could offer a profit-sharing plan similar to those at hundreds of companies. They could put 25 percent of after-tax profits into such a plan. The plan is a tax write-off for the owners and it's a meaningful form of compensation for players. At most companies, a worker's profit-sharing money is determined by his salary; if his salary is 5 percent of the total payroll, he gets 5 percent of the profit-sharing money.

For example, If Joe Theismann were paid $400,000 from a total payroll of $4 million, he would be at the 10 percent level. Let's say the Redskins' after-tax profit was $4 million -- not unrealistic these days -- and the team put 25 percent into a profit sharing plan. Of that $1 million, Theismann's share would be $100,000.

Along with limited free agency, binding arbitration and salary disputes and right of first refusal on free agents, a profit-sharing plan would create a fair and equitable division of risk and reward among owners and players.