The National Football League and the NFL Players Association have agreed to resume negotiations this weekend, probably Sunday, following an exchange of phone calls yesterday between negotiators Ed Garvey and Jack Donlan.
"I certainly hope there is a chance for some movement," said Garvey, the NFLPA executive director, about the meeting, the first between the sides since the union went on strike Tuesday. The location of the weekend session was not disclosed but the Associated Press said it will be in New York.
Garvey would not say whether he had received indications that the owners now are willing to give ground on the union's last proposal. That called for the players to receive 50 percent of television revenue dispersed via a wage scale.
"I can't imagine that we would sign a proposal that did not contain a wage scale," Garvey said, "but I won't say that there is no possibility we will . . . We aren't interested in a system that gives $1.5 million to Tom Cousineau and minimum wages to the offensive linemen. The league wants to buy time with this contract. We want a mechanism that will handle both current and future inequities."
There was no indication from either side late yesterday that a major breakthrough in the negotiations could be expected soon.
"This seems to be shaping up as a long-term strike," Garvey said, "but we certainly hope not. We have to hope that the owners agree with (Cincinnati's) Mike Brown, who said that the players have proven their solidarity, so now it's time to start bargaining."
Union sources said the NFLPA was somewhat encouraged by a report in yesterday's Washington Post indicating the owners were willing to guarantee their last $1.6 billion offer. But Garvey pointed out that both sides still haven't agreed on other important issues such as pension, insurance, second medical opinions, right of players to refuse surgery, and a joint committee on drugs.
Five days into this strike, both sides appear to be gearing for what could be a long and arduous struggle over a single major issue: the union's insistence on a wage scale.
The wage scale concept was part of the union's orginal demand that the players receive 55 percent of the NFL's gross income. Now the wage scale is the centerpoint of the union's last offer, which is based on television revenues.
The owners are opposed to a wage scale as much as they were to the percentage of the gross concept. They believe a wage scale would end individual negotiations and would, instead, institute a predetermined pay system based on seniority.
"As long as the union persists in a wage scale, there will be no football, sad to say," Cleveland owner Art Modell said. "The (present) system has worked for 63 years. We are not going to surrender it to Mr. (Gene) Upshaw and Mr. Garvey."
Interviews the past two days with union and management officials indicate both sides have scored major points in the early days of the strike:
Management sources begrudgingly admit that the union's ability to persuade players to strike has been far stronger than original league estimates. The league has been shut down, just as Garvey and Upshaw predicted.
The revelation that owners will receive $30 million in television revenue the first two weeks of the strike caught many players by surprise. Garvey says he heard rumors that the money might be paid out, but the word evidently did not trickle down to the membership, which did not realize the owners would have a short-term strike fund. Any hope of an early settlement, at least in many players' minds, ended when the television fund was uncovered, even though it does have to be paid back.
Now, however, both sides agree future negotiations will turn on how strongly Garvey and his executive committee are tied to a wage scale.
Just as in 1977, when the last collective bargaining agreement was signed, Garvey has the weight of law behind him in the proposal.
In 1977, Garvey had won, through the courts, the unrestricted right of players to move from one team to another upon expiration of their contracts. But he agreed to a limited free agent system, which has failed, while settling for a closed union shop, the major reason for the NFLPA's strength in this strike.
Now, his quest for a wage scale is backed by labor law, which grants unions the right to negotiate wages for its members. Individual negotiations between a player and team are allowed only because the NFLPA has waived its bargaining right through a clause in the collective bargaining agreement.
Will Garvey again yield that right in exchange for some other contract plum? NFL sources say they are unsure what will make the union move off the wage scale idea. One possibility could be across-the-board raises for every player. Another might be a proposal guaranteeing contracts. Then, if a player were cut before his contract expires, he still would be paid the full amount.
The union's decision to abandon percentage of the gross further damaged its credibility with management. League sources say that decision is one reason the NFL is confident the union eventually will give in on the wage scale, too.
The union's proposal is geared to help the vast majority of its members, not the superstars. A wage scale, statistically, would increase the pay of probably 80 to 90 percent of the players. That same large membership chunk also currently is making the strike work by staying out.
Now, it becomes a matter of how long NFLPA leadership can keep that same group of players in line.
Barring a substantial turnaround in negotiations, this is the scenario the sides see over the next few weeks:
Within 10 days, the owners will take a reading of their teams, trying to determine how many players would report if the camps were opened up again. If the feedback is positive, the league will consider resuming the season using free agents and players who break ranks.
"At this time, we are not considering playing with (free agents)," said New England's Chuck Sullivan, chairman of the management council's executive committee. "But we are not ruling it out for some point."
If union strength holds, the NFL likely will float a new proposal, hoping it will prove attractive enough. By then, many players will be feeling the economic pinch of the strike.
Said one union source: "I can see a proposal where they offer even more bonus money, which will take care of the hungry players, and a percentage salary increase that will be attractive to the high-priced player. Then they will hope those two groups will overpower everyone in between and end the strike."