NFL players give ground in strike talks with owners

Striking National Football League players are under increasing pressure to end their two-week-old walkout. A poor negotiating strategy and the threat of more players returning to work have put the NFL Players Association in a difficult spot.

Some labor analysts now predict the union will get very little at the bargaining table.

``I just couldn't understand from the beginning why the players association would ... strike,'' says Bob Berry, a professor of sports law at Boston College. ``I think they're going to lose the strike.''

Some observers say the major problem is that the union's strategy was flawed from the beginning. By making free agency their major demand, the players ``were putting all their eggs in one basket,'' says James Dworkin, a labor-relations professor at Purdue University's Krannert Management School. ``When you only have one issue, you've got no horse-trading'' at the bargaining table.

A free-agency agreement would allow the best players to negotiate, once their contracts expired, to move to teams making the highest bid for their services. The league's owners are dead-set against free agency because they teams would bankrupt themselves in a bidding war for star players.

Even many players have expressed lukewarm support for a strike in which free agency is the demand.

``My players don't feel that strongly about it,'' says one East Coast agent who represents several football players.

Some 100 of the union's nearly 1,600 members have already returned to work. And there were reports that many more would cross picket lines by yesterday - the deadline the league had set for players who want to be paid for next Sunday's games.

Tuesday, after months of fruitless negotiations and no new talks since Sept. 25, the union blinked first. After a nearly all-night meeting of union representatives in Chicago, Gene Upshaw, head of the players association, announced that no single issue would be allowed hold up an agreement.

When talks resumed for the second straight day at 10 a.m. yesterday many observers were saying that, in effect, the union had dropped its demand for free agency.

``I think they're being realistic,'' one player agent says. ``You kind of chip away as a negotiator - a little here, a little there. You never get it all at once.''

But it is not clear that the union retains much leverage to make big gains in other areas, such as guaranteed player contracts, pensions, and protection for players who are union representatives.

``My guess,'' says Gary Roberts, a professor of sports labor and antitrust law at Tulane University, who represented the NFL as a lawyer from 1976 to 1983, ``is that the players are going to give first, because there are just too many players who are ready to go back.''

The owners have tried to put additional pressure on the union by staging games with alternate players, mostly nonunion members. These make-do teams were tagged by fans with colorful names like the Chicago ``Spare Bears'' and the Philadelphia ``Ill-Eagles.''

``The message the owners have been sending ... to the players is: `We can endure a strike of the same duration as 1982,''' says Bill Gould, a Stanford University law professor and coauthor with Professor Berry of a book on labor relations in professional sports. When General Motors or Ford are faced with a strike, he says, ``they've got to really scramble because they're in competition with other people selling cars.'' In football, though, the owners don't face that competition - either from another football league or among themselves, since each team shares equally the bulk of the league's revenues, Berry points out.

``It's more than revenue sharing,'' Professor Gould says. ``There's just an incredible amount of money in football. They're much more financially secure than baseball and basketball in toto.''

If there is a chink in the owners' strategy, it has to do with the staging of the alternate games. Attendance at last Sunday's contests averaged 25 percent, rather than the usual 90 percent. Television viewership was also down, with ABC's Monday night game between the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers recording a 26 percent drop from the prestrike Monday night game.

``I think the league over time has a lot to lose by putting on these games,'' says Berry. ``It really does make a mockery of the eventual championships, particularly if it goes for another two or three weeks.''

Many fans seem lukewarm about the games.

``I wasn't satisfied with the quality,'' says Chicago Bear fan James Dean. But he adds, ``Yeah, I'd watch it.''

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