By at least one labor expert's assessment, the National Football Players Association strike has all the subtlety of fourth and goal from the 1-yard line.

"This is no bargaining issue," said Quinn Mills, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. "This is a test of raw strength." And as far as Mills is concerned, the test is just about over and the owners have won.

"Any negotiation has two stages," Mills said. "First you have the power struggle, then you have bargaining. But in the football strike, it never got past the power struggle."

As a result, he said, "it was possible for one side to simply win. Then it's up to the winner to see about allowing face-saving for the other side."

And the owners, said Mills, "seem to want blood."

Professionals in labor and management relations say they've been watching the football strike closely. Rarely is what they do for a living played out so publicly with such grand stakes. But, despite their fascination with the unfolding events, many were reluctant to comment on the record.

"It wouldn't be right," said a spokesman for General Electric's management team, "for us as practitioners to comment on someone else's woes. If we were in the same situation, we wouldn't want others saying, 'They should have seen that coming months ago.' "

But, from those who would comment, on the record or off, came the prevailing view that the players violated a basic principle of bargaining by painting themselves into a corner at the outset on the issue of free agency, insisting they wouldn't sign a contract without it, which precipitated a head-butting power struggle that has left them reeling.

"It's bashing, not negotiations," said a New York veteran of 20 years arbitrating management-labor disputes, who begged anonymity. "Rule 1 is you never back yourself into a corner. The players did it, now they're being bashed and they have no place to go. They take stuff off the table and say to the owners, 'Let's talk.' The owners say, 'We're coming in another step.' "

The experts questioned some tactics employed by NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw, a former Hall of Fame player.

"Expert bargainers avoid bargaining in the media because it pushes you into a locked-in situation," said James Gross, professor of Industrial Relations at Cornell. "When you go public with a position," as the players did on free agency, he said, "then for reasons of face-saving, you're committed. Bargaining just can't work without flexibility."

Gross said the union was shooting for the moon, anyway, in demanding free agency. "They were trying to pull off one of the toughest feats in bargaining -- to win back something they'd already bargained away," he said. "If there is a criticism, it's making that a featured, public demand."

Yet Gross, who said he refuses "on principle" to watch NFL replacement games on TV, sympathizes with Upshaw's plight. "Normally, there's a common suffering level" among workers on strike, he said. "Here, one guy makes $200,000 a game, another makes a hell of a lot less. So it's hard to maintain solidarity."

Moreover, added management-labor lawyer William J. Curtin, "With football players you're dealing with a special kind of employes. They've grown up with a win-lose mentality, which is contrary to the principles of compromise. So it makes negotiating difficult."

"I don't think the union did a real good job of managing their side," said Quinn, the Harvard professor, speaking, significantly, in the past tense. "It's as if they're so busy managing their own internal differences, they lacked the time and resources to map a strategy and carry it out. That happens to unions."

By contrast, the owners have hung tough and secret. Former federal mediator Ken Moffett likened management negotiator Jack Donlan to Paladin, the hired gun from the "Have Gun Will Travel" TV and radio shows.

Gross agreed. "It's clear Donlan is a tough, tough bargainer. He's the guy you get to knock the other guy for a loop. Some owners are probably licking their chops now, saying, 'We have a chance to have no union now, or one so weak it will be years before it picks its head up.' "

Curtin said Upshaw, by contrast, "is an all-pro guard" who lacks the experience to negotiate at this level, "the same way I couldn't block and tackle in the NFL."

Curtin said Upshaw's proposal this week to submit remaining disputes to binding arbitration was a good example. It was not a serious offer, he said. "It's just one more ultimatum, made for the benefit of the media and his people, which is not the way to advance a compromise.

"I think deep down," said Curtin, "Upshaw wants to reach agreement. But he doesn't know the techniques . . ."

If there is an avenue yet to travel, professionals guessed it was mediation, since the likelihood of owners accepting binding arbitration on anything was seen as remote.

"Binding arbitration is uncommon in labor disputes in the private sector," said Phillip Ray, vice president of the National Planning Association, a labor-management think tank studying national issues.

But, said Ray, "It's now down to a half-dozen issues, the media is all over the case; it's a classic situation for mediation. I think Gene {Upshaw} could use counsel from his colleagues at the AFL-CIO and other labor/management scholars on that."

Ray said the union might consider pushing for an intermediate step between mediation and binding arbitration -- mediation with recommendation, where the mediator offers his assessment at the end of talks, but it is not binding.