A forest of microphones on long poles quivered at the sight of Jack Donlan, whose arrival by taxi at the Hyatt Regency Hotel caused a batallion of shoulder cameras to advance one step across the driveway. It was 12:51 p.m., Day 12, and an electrified reporter shouted to Donlan to learn if pro football would be played again. An ink-stained wretch with no transistorized tools heard only the word "arbitration" and saw Donlan, in the style of presidents, wave to the lenses as he walked into the hotel without speaking.

The woman may have been Indian, or Pakistani, and she surely was confused. Leaving the hotel, she stepped into an automobile with a license plate reading LIZ CAR. She looked, from the corner of her eyes, at the dozens of people with cameras and microphones. At this hotel, barely a long punt from the Capitol, she might have thought Jack Donlan was somebody important, a visiting dignitary carrying secrets of state he couldn't reveal to a madding press.

Jack Donlan is the executive director of the National Football League's Management Council. He is the owners' hired gun, a labor negotiator so tough or so stubborn (pick one) that his previous employer, National Airlines, once was stuck in two years worth of strikes over a five-year period.

LIZ CAR pulled away into the glorious sunlight of a day when all mankind belonged at a college football game, if not at Memorial Stadium, where the Orioles would work earnestly at a miracle. But here we were on a hotel driveway when, at 12:55, Ed Garvey came straight from his car to speak to the TV and newspaper people.

Ed Garvey is the executive director of the NFL Players Association. The players' hired gun is an organizer who has turned a weak union into one that can bench-press 500 pounds (the players' view) or a social reformer whose only goal in this strike is fame that will carry him into the U.S. Senate (the NFL's view).

To the press on the driveway, Garvey said, in several different ways, that nothing much has happened.

"We have agreed," he then said, and the microphones fairly trembled upon hearing such a construction, "to drop the verbal warfare."

Oh.

Four hours later, they had agreed to nothing else.

They cut off the talks.

They cut them off -- and there hadn't been a mention of the root issue: the wage scale requested by the players.

The owners' man, Donlan, said there is "a terrible impasse" and a neutral mediator is needed to fix it. He also said his bosses will meet Monday and talk of many things, including opening camps to players who want to quit the strike.

The players' man, Garvey, said before he accepted mediation he wanted his executive committee of player representatives to meet two days face to face with the owners on the management council. If nothing came of that, he said, then mediation might make sense.

"They have not bargained five minutes since February," said Garvey a half-hour after Donlan said, "They don't want to make changes in the system; they want to overthrow the system."

Much of what the players want is good common sense. Their bodies are their tools. They ought to have access to their own medical records, a request denied by the owners. They ought to have generous medical, disability, pension and severance benefits because their working lives are violent, dangerous and brief. On these items, the owners have proposed minimal improvements.

The players deserve much more money. The comic strip "Tank McNamara" yesterday parodied the players' plea for union solidarity by depicting a football player making $9,234 an hour in a panel next to a man with a wrench at $9.23 an hour. As soon as Tank can find a brain surgeon who makes $15 million a night, as a Sugar Ray Leonard might, such parody will make sense. Entertainers deserve their fair share of the box office money.

The players aren't getting that fair share. Even the NFL agrees to that, as proven by its willingness to talk, however emptily, of paying another $1.6 billion the next five years. The problem becomes how to get that money to the players.

The players want it handed to the union for dispersal according to seniority and performance. The owners promise to spend it, but according to their own desires and with no guarantee it will profit the majority of players.

The owners want to maintain "the system," as Donlan calls it.

The owners have power on their side, and power yields to principle only reluctantly. Principle is on the players' side. On the way to the bank with their oil well deposits, the owners this year picked up an extra $8 million in TV revenue lying on the sidewalk.

Now the players, entertainers gifted as surely as Sugar Ray is gifted, want their fair share of that found loot.

You can disagree on the idea of a wage scale. It is needless socialism when the free enterprise of free agency will work just as well. Eric Harris -- ever hear of him? -- is a free agent defensive back out of Canada who signed a $1 million deal with Kansas City.

The owners are right to say no to the wage scale, which they see as a catalyst to irrational salary increases.

But they haven't offered a real alternative. It would be interesting, for example, to see the players' reactions should the owners offer a free agency deal with across-the-board salary increases.

If the players rejected such a proposal, they wouldn't need a mediator. They would need a psychiatrist.

As Garvey left the basement press room, someone shouted, "The Orioles won."