With nearly three-fourths of the issues between National Football League management and striking players still unresolved and the talks creeping along, negotiators for both sides planned to remain in Northern Virginia and bargain through the weekend.
As NFL teams prepared for a second week of games between replacement players today and Monday night, little if any progress was reported from yesterday's round of meetings between players union chief Gene Upshaw and the owners' negotiator, Jack Donlan.
The talks were recessed shortly after 9 p.m. last night and were due to resume at 9 a.m. today, with pensions scheduled as the principal topic of discussion.
The NFL Management Council, which bargains for the league's 28 owners, claimed the union's proposal on unrestricted free agency is unchanged and still the No. 1 obstacle to reaching an agreement. But the NFL Players Association says that is "categorically untrue" and that the owners' demand for a six-year contract and changes in the 20-year-old pension system are the two major roadblocks.
Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFLPA, outlined a free agency proposal currently on the table that the union feels would allow player movement while still providing the owners with the right of first refusal and compensation in case a player went to another club.
The union's proposal, Allen said, provides that at the end of a player's first contract, the club could make a qualifying offer to retain the player by giving him a 20 percent raise and guaranteeing that contract.
If the player received an offer from another club, the original team would have the opportunity to match that offer and keep the player, or let the player go and receive compensation. Allen said that compensation could come in the form of an extra draft choice or choices, depending on the player's salary.
Jim Conway, executive director of the Management Council, denounced the union's proposal, saying it would "strap" the current system and "pit one owner against the other."
Pension, length of the new contract and free agency are just a few of the reasons that more than 1,400 striking players will not be on the field for a third consecutive week.
This week, the nonunion players will be joined by approximately 130 players who have defected from the union since the strike began Sept. 22.
The owners apparently are hoping that players who were counting on the strike being settled this week will break ranks and cross the picket lines next week after losing their salaries for a third straight week.
Union sources said that is why the owners continue to emphasize free agency as the stumbling block because management believes that is not an issue over which the players will want to continue to strike.
The owners also are counting on increased stadium attendance over last week's turnouts, which they think would put added pressure on striking players to return to their clubs next week. A network source indicated television ratings probably will be even lower than last week, when they plummeted by as much as 49 percent, "because the good teams are playing the bad teams."
It is difficult to project attendance around the league. Although many fans held on to their tickets, expecting a quick settlement, many may choose not to show up. In Chicago, for example, only 10,000 tickets have been returned, but it is unlikely the Bears and Minnesota Vikings will draw 58,000.
"I think tomorrow's games will go smoothly," Conway said. "I think we'll see the level of play improved and attendance should be better."
Sarge Karch, a Management Council consultant said that the league expects this week's games to average approximately 25,000, up from last week's figure of nearly 17,000 per game.
From all indications, it wasn't a very productive day at the bargaining table. Upshaw and Donlan met for only one hour Friday night, and didn't begin meeting yesterday until after 1 p.m., although they had been scheduled to start at 9 a.m.
The union continued to accuse Donlan and management of dragging their feet. Conway says this "inherently" is a long and laborious process.
Conway again reiterated that the union's demand for "unfettered" movement for its players at some point during their career -- something the owners have flatly refused -- "remains unequivocably the No. 1 issue in these negotiations. Free agency remains the obstacle."
Allen said that was "completely inaccurate to say our position on free agency hasn't changed. Gene Upshaw has told Jack Donlan across the table, during these negotiations, in this hotel that that issue will not be a stumbling block in these negotiations. Anyone who characterizes it that way is simply not telling the truth."