NEW YORK, SEPT. 16 -- A strike by National Football League players loomed more likely today as management dismissed the latest union proposal as "very, very disappointing" and union chief Gene Upshaw said he expected no more negotiations until after next Tuesday's strike deadline.
Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL Management Council, said at a news conference here that he did not see how a strike could be avoided without an extension of the union's strike deadline. He said the sides differed widely in their opinions on what constitutes a suitable framework for settlement.
Donlan said Tuesday's counterproposal by the players union would cost at least $200 million more than the $470 million in salaries and benefits the players received last season. "I'm hard-pressed to find it compromising when you're talking about a $200 million demand a week before the strike date," he said.
On the subject of free agency, the key element of the union's counterproposal, Donlan called the NFLPA's offer to reserve unrestricted movement for players who have completed four seasons as "only a cosmetic change." The NFLPA previously had proposed unrestricted free agency for all players.
The owners' offer of Sept. 7 proposed liberalized free agency, but still required that teams be compensated when they lose a free agent, and that teams retain the right of first refusal when a player's contract expires, as has been the case for the past 10 years. Donlan said the owners will negotiate the concept, but still want the right of first refusal and compensation. Donlan said allowing players to become unrestricted free agents after four years would only lead to future contract negotiations seeking free agency after fewer years.
Donlan said he was pessimistic that additional sessions would result in progress. So he renewed a call for the dispute to be submitted to mediation and for him to meet one-on-one with Upshaw.
"We're so very far apart," Donlan said. "It's so very, very difficult to see how you'll get there. You know, mediators perform very valuable services . . . Mediators . . . are innovative.
"It truly makes no sense from my perspective to be sitting at the bargaining table with so few days left trying to work on details when there's a $200 million increase from last year."
In a related development, management said it filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board charging the union with failing to negotiate in good faith. It is a rarity when management files such a grievance; usually it is the union attempting to get management back to the bargaining table.
And in Washington, Redskins player representative Neal Olkewicz said he would "physically" confront any player who crosses a picket line to play on a team fielded by management during a strike. Reportedly, 19 of the 28 teams -- including the Redskins -- have given players released in the preseason $1,000 guarantees to ensure their availability in the event of a strike.
"I would fight," Olkewicz said yesterday at Redskin Park. "I'm saying I would do that. I'm not saying others would do it. Some might. This is my personal opinion. It's not an official opinion."
Olkewicz went on, "I fully expect that the guys who signed the contract will try and come back and play. I understand why they would do it, but they better understand why I would do what I do, too."
Olkewicz said he has heard "a rumor" that the Redskins already are assembling a strike team. "We aren't doing anything," Coach Joe Gibbs said.
On the subject of the Management Council's news conference, Upshaw said in a telephone interview that Donlan's comments were "exactly what I expected. While they call for mediation, we call for negotiation. They were the ones who walked away from the table."
Upshaw said that the owners are trying to use delay tactics and want mediation so the players will be forced to continue playing while a deal is worked out.
"They don't think the players will strike," Upshaw said. "When they'll believe it is when they go in and find the locker rooms empty . . . They think the players will rethink their position for a strike date. They've misread the players."
In these negotiations, each side continually has charged that the other does not want to negotiate. Sarge Karch, a negotiator for management and a former executive director of the Management Council, said the two sides are farther apart at this stage than at the same time in 1982, when the NFLPA struck for 57 days.
Upshaw again said management has two primary objectives in the latest negotiations: to stall and to divide the union. NFLPA sources said that the latest actions by management only strengthened that belief.
The reasons for wanting to delay are two-fold, Upshaw said. First, a delay could get players to break ranks, and secondly, according to Upshaw, if the owners can get a third week of games in, the television networks are obligated to pay owners about 25 percent more of their rights fees.
By doing this, the union source said, management hopes to get NFLPA members to continue playing and join free agents and nonunion members on teams the NFL owners hope to field in the event of a strike. Today, Donlan denied he was trying to break the union, which has struck against the league in four previous contract negotiations.
"We need this union," he said. "It's not like other industries. Why do we need this union? It's simple. We have an antitrust labor exemption. That exemption exists because we have a relationship with our union."
Upshaw agreed that management still wants to deal with a players union. "What they want," he said, "is a sweetheart union -- a union that is weak and has no say."
In a related matter, Upshaw said he will meet in Washington Thursday afternoon with AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland and AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Tom Donahue to map strategy and support for a strike. Washington Post staff writer Christine Brennan in Washington contributed to this report.