Jack Donlan, chief negotiator for National Football League owners, says the issue of free agency has become "the stumbling block" in recent talks with the NFL Players Association to replace the collective bargaining agreement that will expire in eight days.

Donlan said he remains optimistic an accord can be reached without affecting games. However, he said that if the NFL players opt to strike, he would expect them to wait until after the third game of the season (about Oct. 1), at which point they would have the minimum amount of time required to receive credit for a year's pension. Donlan also said the possibility of the owners locking out players before the third game "is not an entirely dead issue, but it might as well be."

Players union general counsel Dick Berthelsen said there has been "no real progress" in the negotiations. He said the NFLPA is "telling players to buckle their chinstraps" in preparation for a possible players' strike.

"But that is not to say that we won't exhaust every possibility before we'd do it {strike}," Berthelsen said. "I think management would prefer to force us up against a deadline."

The last meeting between the two sides was Aug. 14-15. In prior meetings, each side was represented by as many as 20 officials. In order to narrow the scope and minimize confusion, though, only two members of each side appeared at the most recent meetings. Donlan and Jim Conway, another official with the NFL owners' Management Council, met with Berthelsen and Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFLPA. Donlan said he will meet with his staff early this week and that further talks with the union likely will be scheduled soon thereafter.

"{Free agency} is the stumbling block because the union feels it can't reach accord in other areas until they know what will happen there," Donlan said. "Our position on free agency hasn't changed much. The owners have told me, 'We're not going down that path.' "

Although the existing five-year bargaining agreement, which was signed in 1982, expires Aug. 31, neither side appears to be viewing that date as a deadline. The NFL regular season begins Sept. 13. Berthelsen said more than 93 percent of league players have voted to authorize the executive committee to call a strike, should it deem it necessary.

Both sides insist that a more cordial bargaining atmosphere exists now than in 1982, when a 57-day players' strike wiped out seven weeks worth of games. Commissioner Pete Rozelle has said the 1982 strike cost owners appromiximately $150 million in revenues. Upshaw said he has worked at improving the strained relations with management that existed under his predecessor, Ed Garvey.

"If they can't make a deal with me," Upshaw said in a recent interview, "than they can't make a deal with anybody."

The NFLPA has said it seeks improvements in eight "horizontal" issues, including increased pension benefits, more guaranteed contracts, protection for players union representatives, and, most notably, a free-agent system with no strings attached. By eliminating compensation and the right of first refusal, the NFLPA believes free agents will be able to move more freely to other teams.

Currently, if one team signs another team's free agent, it must compensate that team with a pre-set number of draft picks. The more talented and higher-salaried the free agent, the greater the compensation. There has been virtually no movement of players since this system was instituted in 1977.

Donlan said, "In 1977, the players union said it was more interested in money than movement. Now, they've got the dough and they say they want movement."

Donlan added, "In 1982, players believed they were underpaid. I don't get that impression now. From what I read in the newspapers, free agency doesn't seem to be a big issue with the players. I think players recognize their salaries have gone up 142 percent since 1981."

Donlan admitted that club revenues also have increased "significantly" since 1981, but he said "profits have gone down the schnitzel." At the NFL owners meeting in March in Maui, Hawaii, Rozelle noted that "all but a few" made profits last season.

The union's Berthelsen said that when management made its final offer during the 1982 negotiations its "strategy was to bypass the {union} negotiators and go straight to the players. They made about 1,800 copies of their proposal and, within a couple hours, it was in the laps of players. That was their conquer-and-divide approach.

"But I don't think the conquer-and-divide approach will work this time. The mood of the players appears to be very united and very confident in their leadership. In fact, at one team meeting it was suggested that if management tries to go directly to the players this time, there will be a ceremonial burning of the proposal."