Let's see if I have this straight. At about 9 p.m. Monday, Gene Upshaw said this: if the NFL owners did not meet a list of demands that included binding arbitration on free agency, his union would strike "for the duration." He must have meant the duration of the night, for at about 6:30 p.m. yesterday, Upshaw, in effect, said the union no longer thought free agency a matter worthy of binding arbitration.

In negotiations, Upshaw was trying a maneuver known on the football field as a sucker play. The idea is for a blocker to move one way at the snap of the ball and hope the lineman opposite him follows. Through that vacated hole comes the man with the ball. In effect, the defensive player renders himself helpless.

Enormous gains are possible from sucker plays. So is enormous embarrassment, because a defender who stands his ground is able to smack the unprotected ball carrier silly. Say this for the owners: they have filled the hole Upshaw's tactic was designed to create. Filled it quickly; filled it solidly.

Upshaw was able to generate quite a lot of public support with those Monday demands that included: all striking players being reinstated for the remainder of the season and the 1982 collective bargaining agreement staying in effect until the end of the season or until a new contract was reached. If mediation failed after six weeks, anything unresolved would go to binding arbitration.

That sounds fair, and it is. Who could possibly reject such a high-minded offer? The owners could -- and in a hurry -- because binding arbitration is another sly way of getting what the union dearly wants -- free agency. Historically, sports owners almost always lose when major matters are settled by someone outside the system.

Baseball got free agency through an arbitrator. NFL players achieved free agency through the courts, on Dec. 29, 1975, but later bargained for the player-movement rules it now wants changed. Baseball owners recently were judged to have been in collusion against free agents by an arbitrator. Little wonder the NFL owners rejected two Upshaw bids for binding arbitration yesterday.

So the great issue that divides NFL players and management remains two words; only now those two words are not free agency. They are binding arbitration. And anybody who sets his helmet on that, as the players apparently have, very likely is going to get it smashed.

I say apparently, because a qualifier almost always is necessary in negotiations as protracted as these. As we learned during the last NFL strike, in 1982, nothing is etched in stone.

Maybe management will yield. Maybe in an hour or two, or a day or two, Jack Donlan will announce that the owners have accepted binding arbitration on several issues. Betcha they don't risk it on anything considered vital. Otherwise, what they have fought for these three-plus weeks will be subject to the whims, or the good judgment, of someone neutral.

When the owners rejected Upshaw's first proposal, which included binding arbitration on free agency, he whipped it off the table; when Upshaw later said everything else must be determined by binding arbitration, the owners said no, quicker than he could turn his back after a live television interview.

No sooner had Upshaw announced his second proposal to one Channel 9 reporter at the Touchdown Club, than another Channel 9 reporter, with management in New York, reported the rejection.

"I can't even get out of the room to surrender," Upshaw joked.

To make the obvious even more clear, Donlan wired a message to Upshaw that read: "Just so there is no misunderstanding, as I wrote you earlier today and also confirmed by phone, we have rejected binding arbitration on any and all unresolved bargaining issues."

Management is twisting player resolve as tightly as possible. To the breaking point, some insist. There is some pressure on management, because replacement players active for a third game would be eligible to participate in playoff money and given credit toward the pension plan.

The striking players surely are feeling close to suffocated. They have missed three paychecks; they have had management call their bluff by fielding teams; they have seen the television networks agree to show the scab games another week. Even worse, they have seen a couple of brilliant players, Mark Gastineau and Howie Long, rendered ineffective by players judged unfit for NFL duty before the strike.

The players have remained surprisingly united. Less than 10 percent have broken ranks, which seems remarkable considering the range of emotions and salary levels. Fury probably is the immediate reaction to the owners turning down what they see as a reasonable compromise; most of the players might not realize that Upshaw's Monday offer to get an arbitrator involved is essentially what management rejected at least a week before the strike.

As Upshaw predicted hours earlier, the Redskins last night voted not to return to work. Probably, some recall that in 1982 the union accepted about the same deal management offered before the 57-day strike started. The owners seem much more belligerent this time.

"They have some exemptions they get from us," Upshaw said.

The union does provide the owners protection from some antitrust laws. As happens in many, if not most, businesses, the owners seem bent on making sure the adjective in front of union is weak instead of strong.