Marathon bargaining sessions between negotiators for the National Football League and the striking NFL Players Association were resumed here today as the NFL's first regular-season players strike entered its 26th day.
But a quick settlement of the dispute appeared unlikely as the nation's football fans prepared for their fourth consecutive Sunday of NFL games called off because of the strike.
Mediator Sam Kagel was said by spokesmen for both sides in the dispute to be meeting with the groups separately, moving from one room to another in an effort to negotiate a settlement.
The meetings, which lasted more than 14 hours today, recessed shortly after midnight and will be resumed after church Sunday.
This morning, Kagel, a 73-year-old San Francisco lawyer, summoned information specialists for both management and the union to a meeting to remind them of the news blackout he had imposed Tuesday as the mediation process was beginning.
"He defined the meaning of the word blackout," said Dave Sheridan, a spokesman for the NFLPA. Under the newly defined blackout, only the times when the talks begin and end will be announced. Kagel will continue to brief the media once daily.
Today, he said only, "The parties are engaged in continuous and extensive negotiations on the remaining noneconomic issues."
Meanwhile, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle told the Associated Press the two sides had a long way to go before reaching an agreement, but refused to speculate whether the entire season was being jeopardized by the prolonged negotiations.
Rozelle, in a telephone interview from his home in Harrison, N.Y., refused to characterize the status of the talks, but did say, "Nothing would cause you to think that we're imminently going to have something."
Confirmation that there remain noneconomic issues yet to be settled puts the negotiations substantially behind the timetable envisioned by union sources Thursday after the first two days of talks.
Sensing substantial movement after the first two days, the union had hoped to address the major economic package early Friday.
But the momentum halted abruptly Friday morning when management and union negotiators walked away from the bargaining table for seven hours in a dispute over the poststrike applicability of unfair labor practice charges.
There followed an exchange of charges and countercharges -- despite the news blackout -- until Kagel called the sides back into negotiations early in the evening. At that time, he began the process of separating the sides and moving back and forth from one to the other in what the media has termed an NFL version of shuttle diplomacy.
Today's redefined news blackout was the result of the flurry of public charges and countercharges Friday.
There was no indication of when the sides would move from the noneconomic issues into the economic area, which contains the major stumbling block to a settlement. That is the union's demand that a trust fund be set up to pay the players on a seniority-based scale with performance-incentive bonuses, and that the NFL divert $1.6 billion to that fund over a four-year period.
The league says it is willing to spend that money over five years, but wants to retain the old system of individual negotiations as the primary method of compensation.
Both sides see some progess in resolution of the noneconomic issues, although the pace has slowed substantially the last few days. "They haven't settled anything the strike was about," said one source.