New hope for strike settlement, but is pro football season salvageable?

The question that gets asked over and over again is: Will the pro football strike end and the season continue?

The parties to the dispute are making a renewed effort to dig themselves out from under the avalanche of pessimism that has surrounded the first in-season walkout in National Football League history.

Over the weekend, the owners made their first formal offer in almost two months. It included the seed of a wage scale, which had become the major stumbling block in the often acrimonious negotiations.

The owners had been unyielding in their insistence on individual contract negotiations, and the players just as determined to establish some sort of salary formula.

The glaciated talks had become so fruitless that independent negotiator Sam Kagel stopped them for a week. The obstinate rivals were allowed to stew in their juices - to ponder mounting financial losses, growing fan alienation and apathy, and increasing complications in salvaging the 1982 season.

The cold war experienced an immediate thaw once the talks resumed in New York over the weekend. Acting as the icebreaker was the owners' proposal of a $1.28 billion, four-year package, which would guarantee a minimum wage on a player's salary each year and provide for annual raises.

Union negotiator Ed Garvey wasn't reported to be doing handstands over the offer, but it was the concession the players had been looking for, a crack in the armor, and a sign that a real dialogue - perhaps the first since the collective bargaining agreement expired in February - could begin.

The players responded Monday with a counter proposal which a management spokesman said still asked for too much money and too short a term of contract (three years). But at least the two sides appeared to be bargaining seriously at this juncture, and the hostility which had characterized the talks prior to the one-week hiatus was now conspicuously absent.

A sense of urgency can surely be felt by both sides.

Six weeks of games have been missed from the 16-week schedule and there's good reason to wonder if the season will, or has already, reached the point of no return.

At various times during the strike, league executives have offered opinions on what constituted a legitimate season. The consensus seemed to be that 12 games were a must to produce divisional champions in an equitable manner.

Speculation grew that the league was on the verge of packing it in, calling off whatever remaining games there were - regardless of any settlement - instead of playing out the string.

Such reports may have been leaked out with the idea of prodding the negotiators, or at least encouraging those who they represent to apply some pressure.

In fact, Garvey's hard line negotiating did begin to come under fire by some players, who spoke their piece at a gathering of team player representatives. But if the owners were hopeful that this was the beginning of a mutiny, they were disappointed, because the dissenters were seemingly appeased and the union's solidarity restored. Maybe it is because the union didn't crack that the owners are now lowering their guard.

As it stands, both parties are already losers. Despite getting what amounts to an advance on next season from the networks, the owners are now losing an estimated $19 million in TV revenues each NFL-less weekend. The players, meanwhile, get paid only when they play.

The union believes its 1,500 members could conceivably collect back wages even for missed games. This would hinge on whether or not the National Labor Relations Board ever rules the strike to be caused by unfair labor practices rather than economic considerations.

It's rather doubtful that would happen, though, since the players initially demanded 55 percent of the NFL's gross revenues before the strike materialized. Basically they want more money, and have tried to get it without advocating more liberal free agency.

To some degree, the union has eased off the cocksure posture it assumed earlier in the bargaining process. It has dropped the 55 percent demands, although it still reportedly still seeks a percentage of the league's TV revenues. And the arrogant rallying cry of ''We are the game'' has apparently been placed in cold storage, if not dropped altogether. The players were certainly humbled by their embarrassing attempts to put on a series of all-star games, which were box office disasters. Games in Washington and Los Angeles were played before virtually empty stadiums, and the idea for more alternative games scrapped, at least for the time being.

The players apparently will content themselves to participating in whatever games take place after a settlement. Even if only a few are possible, the owners probably couldn't cancel them without the action being labelled a lockout.

With the Super Bowl cemented into a Jan. 30 slot, the most games that could be played now might be 11, including the two before the strike began. This is assuming the strike ends promptly, one week is spent practicing, two playoff weeks are utilized for regular season games, and no more than one game is scheduled per week.

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