PHILADELPHIA, SEPT. 25 -- Negotiations aimed at ending the four-day-old strike by National Football League players were recessed indefinitely today. No progress was reported in three days of talks here and union leader Gene Upshaw said the owners will use the delay to test the players' resolve.
"We came to bargain, they came to leave, and that's exactly what has taken place," said Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "This is no more than a test for the players to see if the players will stick together over the next few days -- over the next few weeks, if that's what it takes -- to prove that we are solid."
Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL Management Council, the owners' negotiating arm, said he saw no reason to continue negotiations with the two sides firmly entrenched in their respective positions on the pivotal issue of free agency.
In addition to free agency -- which concerns a player's ability to sell his services to other teams once his contract has expired -- severance, retirement benefits, protection for player representatives and drug testing also were discussed during the previous three days.
The players want a free agency policy that would enable them to move freely from team to team. The owners have refused to give up the current system that ties player movement to compensation in the form of high-round draft choices. Under that system, only one player has moved to a new team in the past 10 years.
"If you continue to meet, people all think, 'If they're meeting, there's a settlement around the corner,' " Donlan said. "That's misleading to everyone. It gives everyone a false message, a false impression.
"In addition to meeting, you have to have a mindset to be prepared to negotiate and get a good deal. I don't think we're there yet. There is no mental mindset that says we're prepared to make drastic, significant moves in these areas. That has to come, no matter how it comes."
That point in time is not likely to occur until after the NFL attempts to resume the season with replacement players and a handful of veteran players who did not join the strike that was called Tuesday by the 1,585-member NFLPA. This weekend's 14 games were called off by the league Thursday.
Upshaw, who took few questions at a late-afternoon news conference, said simply, "There are a lot of pressures brought to bear on both sides." Donlan skirted the issue when asked about the replacement games after predicting earlier that the games scheduled to be played Oct. 4 and 5 would be "very exciting, very competitive."
Doug Allen, NFLPA assistant executive director, predicted those games would be "an unmitigated disaster." A union strategy, he said, is to shut down stadiums on those days by getting other unions to honor the NFLPA picket lines and by convincing fans to stay away.
"The next thing to increase pressure on them is the scab games," Allen said.
The striking players received two boosts here today. This morning, the unions that represent food vendors and ticket takers at Veterans Stadium held a news conference to urge their members to honor the picket lines. By the end of the day, six of the Eagles' replacement players had changed their minds about playing and had left camp.
The feeling among union leaders is that if the players can keep the Oct. 4 games from being played or if those games are an embarrassment to the league, then it will be the owners who may have to reevaluate their position.
Playing those games is crucial to the league, because it is supposed to get a $98 million television payment on Oct. 1. The networks have not said whether they intend to televise any games past Oct. 4 or to make a reduced payment if the strike continues. Upshaw says he is counting on pressure by the television networks and sponsors to force the owners' hand.
On the other hand, if the Oct. 4 games are successful, sources close to the union say the NFLPA's position will be severely weakened and the owners will be well on their way to achieving what Upshaw says is their real goal in these negotiations: the busting of the NFLPA as a strong union.
The owners maintain that the only roadblock to a settlement is the players' desire for a less restrictive system of free agency. Upshaw says free agency is one of seven major issues, all interrelated, that remain to be resolved. But Allen said today, "The issue for them isn't free agency. It's negotiations."
While Upshaw said no new proposals were put on the table during the three days here, Donlan disagreed, saying there was "significant movement" in the pension area. At issue is the $18 million the union says the NFL still owes the players from the last contract.
Donlan said the Management Council offered to give the players the $18 million and let them decide in what benefit areas it would be used. "The $18 million is actually the money we bargained for in 1982," Upshaw said. "We're not going to negotiate for the same money twice."
Donlan said the league did not owe the money because the Internal Revenue Service ruled that it was not a tax deduction for the owners, as the 1982 Collective Bargaining Agreement stipulates. The dispute over the $18 million likely will be settled by a federal judge in Baltimore.
Today, Donlan left no doubt that he thinks the union should reevaluate its position in these talks. He maintained that the union's Sept. 15 counterproposal to a Sept. 7 offer by the owners would increase owners costs by $200 million as well as changing free agency.
"Everybody points the finger at everybody else," Donlan said. "But I mean when you get a $200 million increase in the cost package seven days before deadline, which also includes throwing away the system that brought the players to their current level of benefits and salaries, I really believe they have to . . . take another look at their position."
When will they meet again?
"Jack has my number and I have his," Upshaw said.