Negotiations between the National Football League and the striking NFL Players Association appeared on the verge of collapse today as management negotiators abruptly rejected a comprehensive pay proposal from the union and threatened to walk away from the talks.
Jim Miller, a spokesman for the NFL Management Council, said the league negotiators agreed to a request from mediator Sam Kagel that they meet once more, Saturday at 9 a.m., before breaking off negotiations. Had it not been for Kagel, he said, management would have left the bargaining table today.
As the strike completed its 46th day, there appeared to be little chance for an agreeement and it appeared questionable whether the season will be resumed. Chuck Sullivan of the New England Patriots, the chairman of the management council's executive committee told CBS News: "We think that basically the negotiations are dead."
The management threat to end the talks followed submission by the union of a pay proposal that included demands for $91 million in bonuses to be paid to players this year and a full 16-game NFL season to be resumed once the strike ends.
The plan clearly angered the management council, which distributed financial projections indicating the average NFL club would lose money if the players' proposal was accepted. The union contends the clubs can still make a profit if all its demands are met.
Management was also reportedly angered that the union did not alter the numbers in its wage scale demand.
Two player representatives, Robert Newhouse of the Dallas Cowboys and James Lofton of the Green Bay Packers, confirmed that management had told the union to come back Saturday with a new money proposal or the talks were off.
But another player representative was quoted at a team meeting as saying: "We're willing to negotiate, even compromise, but we're not willing to wave the white flag."
Today's proposal from the union followed a management offer Thursday night that would have given bonuses of $60,000 to all players with four years experience or more. Less experienced players would be eligible for bonuses of $30,000, $20,000 and $10,000, depending on their years in the league.
Management described its proposal Thursday as a "further effort to save the season." Earlier Jack Donlan, the NFL's chief labor negotiator, had said the remainder of the season would not be played unless the players made major concessions.
But the union contends the NFL season, which already has had seven weekends of games called off because of the strike, could be extended and it made no such concessions in its proposal today.
On the bonus payments for this year, the union proposed a graduated scale of payments with $17,500 for rookies, $30,000 for two-year veterans, $65,000 for players in their fifth year and $135,000 for players in their 10th year. Under the union proposal, players with four years of experience or less -- a majority in the NFL -- would receive less in bonuses than they would under the management offer. The union proposal was valued at $31 million more than management's offer of $60 million in bonuses.
The union proposal also called for a full 16-game season and continuation of the full playoff schedule and Super Bowl. A union official said some consideration was given to playing more than one game a week some weeks to be sure the Super Bowl would be completed before the beginning of the new United States Football League season in March.
But the NFL has maintained the Jan. 30 Super Bowl cannot be moved and that it would be impractical to play football in northern cities in January and February.
In its proposal today, the union also renewed its demand that players be guaranteed 50 percent of any new pay television money, to be paid to each player in proportion to his playing time. The players had previously dropped that clause from their demands, but it was renewed today as a form of protection against any new deals with pay television by the individual clubs.
On the issue of a wage scale for the players, one of the vital matters of contention in the strike, the union renewed its demand for a $60,000 minimum for rookies, a $139,000 minimum for players in their fourth year, $215,000 for players in their eighth year and $263,000 for players in their 10th year.
Management has offered players a scale beginning at $30,000 for rookies and increasing $10,000 a year for every year in the NFL up to a maximium of 20.
According to financial projections released by management, the average NFL club would lose $860,000 this year and $930,000 next year if the union's demands are met. The union disagrees, contending that the clubs would make $1.71 million this year and $2.68 million next year if the league accepts its proposals.
In Philadelphia, Eagles' owner Leonard Tose told the team's coaching staff to take an "extended vacation." And in Tampa it was reported that Coach John McKay had left for an "extended stay" in California.
A team spokesman could not say if Tose's action meant the owner felt there would be no settlement.
Russ Francis of the San Francisco 49ers told the Boston Globe he is ready for the strike to end. "Enough is enough," Francis said.
"It is like they are lulling the hundreds of football players in the league who want to play football to sleep," he said. "As far as I can see, this thing has turned into a traveling circus, and it won't be funny for a lot of guys if we don't play football this year."
Francis said there is no reason the striking players cannot return to work and let the collective bargaining continue.
"What are they (negotiators) talking about right now," says Francis, answering his own question, "is a contract that would begin in 1983. So if they're talking about a contract that begins in 1983, what are we on strike for now?"