Over a week ago Jack Donlan, who drives the owners' tank, said that "six to eight weeks of hard bargaining" were needed to reach comprehensive agreement to end the football strike. Donlan then left the negotiating table, and he hasn't been back. The transparent disingenuousness of his statement ought to give you some idea of what the owners' position is: They're in for the kill.

The other day the union boss, Gene Upshaw, revealed how frustrated he was at management's siege strategy by waving the terrible towel of racism. Upshaw said, "I didn't want to say this, but I think they're having trouble with me because I'm black." Choosing familiar code words, Upshaw said the owners perceive him as "militant" and "hostile," then accused them of trying "to divide {the players} along the lines of black versus white." Having made the general charge, Upshaw, however, refused to name offending owners or give examples of racist remarks or racially divisive acts.

Perhaps Upshaw thought that by making such a polarizing claim he could embarrass the owners into sitting down to bargain. Perhaps he thought that the invocation of racism would send a particular signal to the black players in the NFL that crossing the picket line would now have consequences beyond a labor issue, that it would conjure racially stereotypical images of toadiness and subservience. Upshaw lashing out in desperation ought to give you some idea of what the union posture is: It's defensive. To underline how defensive that posture is, we now hear that Upshaw may consider sending the players back without a contract.

It's too soon to say definitively who's winning the strike. So much depends on today's attendance and the ensuing posture of sponsors. But the fans have lined up against the union, and the owners would seem to regard collective bargaining as something you don't even do with gloves on.

Donlan's not negotiating because the owners don't want him to -- at least not until after today's inaugural Scab Ball schedule. Without so much as playing a down, management already has welcomed more than 80 certifiable NFL-caliber players back to camp, many of them current or former Pro Bowlers: Danny White, Tony Dorsett, Roy Green, Steve Watson, Marty Lyons, Bruce Clark, to name a few. (Joe Montana and Howie Long, among others, attempted to go back in, and had to be dissuaded by team officials who bade them stay with their teammates.) On the propaganda battlefield, where all strikes are fought, this is a heavy salvo. The union was counting on the absence of stars to convince the fans that Scab Ball wasn't worth watching. The smaller the audience on TV and in the stadiums, the more clout the union could bring to the table. But to the non-ideological fans -- the ones whose allegiance is to the game, not either warring faction -- the prospect of Roy Green going deep and deep and deep again may prove tempting.

Attrition is part of every strike, and the overwhelming majority of players so far are sticking with the union. But in a strike where the absurdly high degree of visibility produces a fishbowl effect, when stars break ranks it's bigger news than when stars hold them. In recent days Jim Kelly, John Elway, Lawrence Taylor and Dexter Manley have expressed the notion that their personal timetables for settling the strike might not be the same as the union's. This is what the owners are counting on: a steady flow of big-name players coming back to add a layer of topsoil to Scab Ball and cover its pitiful lack of depth. It's bait-and-switch. But they only have to fool some of the people some of the time.

You might ask, why would the stars cross? Why them, realistically the only players for whom free agency was pertinent? And why would the rookies and first- and second-year players, those in the most jeopardy of being shortchanged in a career that averages less than four seasons anyway, stand most solidly on the line?

Because the life of a star -- the limos, the adulation, the ability to have a social and a business relationship with the owners -- makes it easier for him to identify with management rather than with the other players. He sees himself as part of a team, but not part of the herd. This explains why Mark Gastineau would, after being spat on by a fellow player, say that Jets owner Leon Hess wouldn't have done that. (But Hess could buy 1,000 guys to do it for him.)

Stars are used to, and expect, special treatment. Originally they join a union out of the brotherhood impulse, but when a strike is called they ask: What's in it for me? And obviously many conclude: nothing. They're making very big money, and don't want to lose even a week's worth; a lavish life style is the fruit of their labor. Intellectually, they accept that their careers will end soon enough because of age or injury, but they don't want something artificial like a strike to hasten that end. And they're unworried about possible reprisals by striking players, because in their hearts they feel the team can't win without them, and they're sure their teammates feel it, too. What Bronco is going to allow someone, especially a teammate, to take a clean shot at John Elway's legs? John Elway is the Broncos.

Everyone in the NFL wants to play, but the stars, the ones at the very top of the ziggurat, they have more passion for it. Owners know this and pander to it. The union knows this and tries with all its might to distract the stimulus. The heroes of the rank and file will be the stars who resist the seduction.

Should the strike end this week, one of the planks of the agreement ought to recognize the insidious divisiveness of Scab Ball. An amnesty ought to be negotiated, and the results of games that preyed on a team's weaknesses, not its strengths, ought to be deleted from the standings forever.