KANSAS CITY, MO., OCT. 27 -- In his first public discussion of the 24-day players strike, National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle said today the season has not been cheapened by three weeks of "replacement" football, that he hopes management and the players' union will continue to negotiate despite the union's lawsuit against the league and that the owners did not make money as a result of the strike.

He also talked about his involvement in trying to get the two sides to reach an agreement, and indirectly addressed the criticism that he wasn't active enough in either preventing a strike or reducing its duration.

"I met with Gene Upshaw {executive director of the players' union} before the strike," he said during a recess at the annual fall meeting of NFL owners. "And the next day I met with both Gene and Jack Donlan {executive director of the NFL Management Council, which does the negotiating for the owners}. I talked with both of them off and on throughout the situation, and through last week {when the union called off the strike as a result of pressure from its own members, and filed suit}."

Rozelle has heard more than once that he should have been more involved, that he should have been more active in forcing the two sides to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, as Peter Ueberroth was perceived as doing for major league baseball in 1985.

"I don't know Peter's situation," Rozelle said. "I would assume, though, that they weren't that far apart, or at least that they were somewhat closer together than we were. If there were one or two issues, I would have been more apt to move in and force a compromise. But we had a real plateful.

"I could have made a lot of noise. But I don't know that it would have helped the process any."

He said his being involved in the dispute "was a very difficult situation because I think each side would like to have had me in it if I could have gotten them what they wanted."

He said he was more involved this time than in 1982 when a players' strike lasted 57 days and caused cancellation of seven weeks of games. "Gene did accept me in a larger role than Ed Garvey {former executive director of the union} did in 1982," Rozelle said.

He added that he talked to Donlan and Upshaw late on Oct. 13, hoping to get them to agree on something to get the players back for the games of Sunday, Oct. 18. When the union missed the owners' deadline of Wednesday, Oct. 14, by 24 hours, the owners went with replacement games for one more week.

"When I talked to Gene and Jack, we were shooting for Wednesday," he said. "They {the Management Council} felt that date was firm."

Asked whether he tried to talk the Management Council into being more flexible, he said: "I had discussions with {the Management Council} but whatever I said was private." It was learned, however, that he did favor allowing the regulars to play, but was overruled by the Management Council.

A source close to Rozelle said the commissioner saw no purpose in making public statements about the strike when he felt he would be more effective working with both parties privately.

In his private dealings with Upshaw and Donlan, Rozelle said he found that "they had so many things on the table . . . Six months before, they had harmonious meetings, but they didn't get much resolved . . . They didn't feel the actual pressure. And all of a sudden the season started and they were in trouble."

Asked if the next Super Bowl will be cheapened, Rozelle said: "No, I don't think so. I still think we'll end up with the two best teams in the Super Bowl. The teams that did reasonably well still have a good chance."

What about the defending champion New York Giants, who will have to play almost perfectly the rest of the season to overcome an 0-5 start (0-3 in replacement games)? Rozelle said the Giants were in that predicament, "as much because they lost two games before the strike as what happened during the replacement games."

He said it is "unfortunate" the replacement games had to be played, but said he thinks the damage was less than had no games been played. "There's a correlation between the time you're out and the reaction of the fans," he said, adding that he "wouldn't anticipate" the reaction to this strike being as severe as in 1982.

Some owners have said they made as much money (or more) with replacement games (primarily because of lower salaries) than during with regular, sold-out games. "I think they lost money; they didn't make money as some people have said," the commissioner said.

Also, he mentioned several reasons he hopes a trial will be averted, including his estimate that the legal expenses would run "between $5 million and $10 million."

"If both sides evaluate it," he said, "I hope they will realize it's worth it to go back and try {to reach a new contract through negotiating}. I hope they will and I think they will, but it's up to them."

Rozelle said with a smile that he might point out to Upshaw that if there is a new agreement signed by late March, an expansion committee could be appointed, and two new teams would mean at least 90 new union memberships.