Agents who represent some of the National Football League's 25 unsigned first-round draft picks said yesterday that there may be an unprecedented number of No. 1 selections holding out this summer.
"I don't think there is any question that there will be a lot more holdouts this year and (NFL) management fully expects it," said Ralph Cindrich, who represents two unsigned first-round picks, tackle Bill Fralic (Atlanta) and wide receiver Al Toon (New York Jets).
"In my opinion, they have already assessed the damage, if any, that the holdouts will cause and they are prepared to incur it."
Nearly 30 agents will meet Monday in Chicago to discuss negotiating strategies. With NFL training camps set to open within three weeks, only three of the league's 28 top choices have signed: defensive tackle Bruce Smith and cornerback Derrick Burroughs with Buffalo and linebacker Emanuel King with Cincinnati.
Several of the agents who will attend the meeting say that the group might consider suing NFL management, charging collusion and price fixing. They claim that the offers to first-round picks have been nearly identical so far, which, they feel, reflects a united effort by management to control player costs.
"The owners have said publicly that they will drive prices back to 1983, but in reality, the time machine lost again and went back to 1981," says Leigh Steinberg, who represents four unsigned No. 1 picks: linebacker Duane Bickett (Indianapolis), tackle Ken Ruettgers (Green Bay), guard Jim Lachey (San Diego) and defensive end Ron Holmes (Tampa Bay).
"This is not basketball or baseball. This is an incredibly healthy sport. This is a case of a sport crying wolf. Franchise prices are rising. Teams will earn $15 million per year in TV revenue. It's a sport with an economically healthy future, and to pick this year and these players to not simply hold the line in terms of last year's salary level, but to try to roll back salaries and ignore the teams' enormous increase in revenues, is not in the best interest of the sport."
Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL Management Council, said: "I think it's a healthy thing that the agents have finally gotten the message. They've sat in the catbird seat for a couple of years and now they aren't there anymore, and now they are crying about it.
"It seems to me that these are the same agents who sat back and certainly took advantage of playing the NFL against the USFL, shopping their offers around. All of a sudden, those negotiating techniques aren't working for them anymore and they are starting to whine. I didn't know it was management's responsibility to fund the agents' early retirement.
"Now, they are getting together (in Chicago) to collude. Talk about collusion. That's legal collusion."
An NFL Players Association survey shows that the average player salary, $160,000 last season, has increased 25 percent in each of the last two seasons.
The primary reason has been competition from the U.S. Football League, which has signed numerous marquee players out of college. In the five preceding years (1977-1982), the survey indicates that NFL players' salaries increased 12 or 13 percent a year.
But now that financial losses make the USFL's future uncertain, numerous agents say that NFL management has decided to capitalize by trying to roll back the salaries of the latest draft picks.
"Based on the offers that have been made to players drafted in the first round this year, it is clear to me that there is at least a collective sharing of philosophy (among NFL management)," said David Ware, who represents running back Lorenzo Hampton, Miami's unsigned first-round pick, and who first proposed the Chicago meeting.
Cindrich and Ware said NFL teams are offering 20 percent less than what they offered first-round draft picks last year. "Maybe a 12 percent increase would be about right this year," Cindrich said. "That's been the conservative norm before these past two years.
Donlan said: "It's no secret that the Management Council told the owners that, if they continued giving 25 percent increases each year, they'd have substantial losses in the last year of the collective bargaining agreement (1986) . . In my opinion, each club is going to have to handle negotiations in a manner they consider right for themselves."