As negotiators for players and management returned to the bargaining table yesterday for the first time in almost three weeks, National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle said he would be willing to get involved "at the right time" to help avoid a strike.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Rozelle also said he would "have to be accepted by both sides" -- the NFL Players Association and the Management Council -- before getting involved in negotiations.

Three-man bargaining teams from the NFLPA and the Management Council, the league's bargaining arm, met yesterday from 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at an undisclosed site in the Washington area. Neither side would comment on the talks.

The owners were represented by Management Council Executive Director Jack Donlan, Assistant Executive Director Jim Conway and former management lawyer Sarge Karch. The players were represented by union Executive Director Gene Upshaw, Assistant Executive Director Doug Allen and General Counsel Dick Berthelsen.

The sides appear far apart on the major issue -- free agency -- and haven't even begun earnest negotiations on many other issues, according to informed sources.

"I wouldn't preclude getting involved," Rozelle told the Associated Press. "But it would have to be at the right time. The problem is you have to be accepted by both sides."

Rozelle was virtually uninvolved in the 1982 strike, which lasted 57 days and cut a 16-week schedule to nine weeks. But Rozelle said he had hoped the negotiations would be less confrontational this time, largely because Upshaw has had a much better working relationship with the management council than did previous union leader Ed Garvey.

But negotiations have been almost nonexistent since Aug. 14, and the five-year contract expired Tuesday. The players have authorized an undisclosed strike date, which probably would come after the second week of the season. The date would be announced Sept. 8.

"There are a lot of items to go through and it's going to take a lot of work," Rozelle said. "But I don't see why {a strike} should happen. It doesn't help either side. We're still getting over the effects of the '82 strike and I see no reason why we need a repeat."

In 1982 the NFLPA opposed Rozelle's involvement, contending he was too close to the owners. NFL spokesman Joe Browne said yesterday that "both sides realize the commssioner is available, but it's very early in the game," referring to the fact that so many issues are unresolved.

Club owners have tried to protect themselves against a strike by offering nonrefundable bonuses of $1,000 to players who have been cut from the rosters as teams try to reach the 45-man limit by Monday.

Rozelle indicated he is opposed to such a practice. "It would create pressure on the players since the game would count toward the Super Bowl and the playoffs," he said. "But from the owners' standpoint, there would have to be refunds on tickets and television if the product is greatly affected by such a move, and I feel it would be."

Mark Murphy, the union's assistant executive director, also assailed management's attempt to field teams in the event of a strike.

"I think their whole threat of playing games during a strike is just another attempt into scaring the players into not striking," Murphy told United Press International. "I think it's a joke. I don't think the public or the {television} networks would stand for it."

Murphy also denied a suggestion by Donlan that the union is considering "a short strike of a week or two to put pressure on owners."

"That hasn't been discussed," Murphy said. "Once we go out, if we have to, the feeling is we're going to stay out until we get a fair deal."

The Chicago Bears are one of more than 15 teams that have offered bonuses to released players.

"Even the people in the union think that's a good idea," Coach Mike Ditka said. "We'd field {a team}. Would it be a joke? It depends on what you think is funny. We'd get a bunch {of prospective players} out here. What's quality and what isn't is in the eye of the beholder."

Meanwhile, Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Ray Wersching of the San Francisco 49ers said they may cross a union picket line if there is a players' strike. Quarterback Montana, who earns about $1 million a year, does not belong to the union.

"I guess I'd want to hear what the rest of my teammates say," he said. "But, personally, I would want to play."