National Football League teams have the option of offering free-agent players released this week a $1,000 bonus to agree to rejoin the teams in case of a strike this season, Jack Donlan, the owners' chief negotiator, confirmed Monday.
Donlan, NFL Management Council executive director, said that he and his advisers drew up the "strike-option contracts" and distributed information about them to the 28 teams via a memo four months ago and a reminder last week.
Meanwhile, the NFL Players Assn. set a strike deadline Monday but would not reveal the date.
"We will do what we have to do to reach a fair agreement," NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw said. "With that in mind, the executive committee unanimously agreed on a date in which the strike would be."
Upshaw said the nine-man union executive committee would recommend the date to the full board of player representatives on Sept. 8 in Washington. He said he wanted the players to consider the date before making that announcement.
The current collective bargaining agreement expired at midnight Monday. But the earliest the union can strike is Sept. 15, after the season's first weekend of games, because its mandatory 60-day notice of intent to strike was filed on July 15 with the National Labor Relations Board and the 28 NFL teams.
Donlan has said he expects the players to set the walkout after the third weekend of the season, at which point they would have the minimum amount of time required to qualify for a year's pension.
Negotiations last took place Aug. 14-15 after which union representatives went on the road to meet with players in training camps.
Donlan said Monday night the parties agreed to meet later this week.
Concerning the bonuses, Donlan said: "What we're saying to the player is 'You're being cut now. If you can find your way to another team, God bless you. If you want to stay around, we'll pay you $1,000 and we'll honor the contract you originally signed with us.' "
Donlan had said using free agents is "just one of the options we have. We wouldn't try that without a full meeting of all the owners."
Joe Gordon, Pittsburgh Steelers vice president, said that seven of eight players his club released Monday accepted a nonrefundable $1,000 bonus and signed a contract saying they would return to play if the union strikes.
"The eighth (player) is coming in (today) to sign it," Gordon said.
"For the player who gets cut, it's a great little deal," Gordon told The Atlanta Constitution. "He gets $1,000 immediately, and it's non-refundable, whether we implement the plan or not."
However, agent Leigh Steinberg, who had three of his more than 60 NFL clients released Monday, told The Times he did not think the proposal was realistic. "I think it's an incredulous situation that is nothing more than posturing (by the management council)," he said.
Steinberg also said: "I think it would be highly unlikely that many players would agree to play during a strike because of peer pressure. The players being released know the players who are still active. They would not want to undercut an effort by those players to get a better contract.
"I would counsel my clients against participating in such a situation."
Another problem, Steinberg said, would be acceptance by fans and the television networks. "I don't think games involving only free agents would be acceptable to those parties," he said.
However, another agent, asking not to be identified, told The Constitution he would advise his free-agent clients to sign the strike-option contract and take the $1,000.
"First of all, there's no USFL, no other options, for these players," the agent said. "It's a chance to play pro football. And it's like any free agent who gets cut: If he can get more time to show himself to a team, he improves his career opportunity. How many times have you seen a player get cut, then he's brought back because of an injury to another player, and the coaches say, 'Hey, maybe we shouldn't have cut this guy after all?' "
Mark Templeton, a free-agent running back from Cal State Long Beach who was released by the Rams last Wednesday, told The Times that no bonus had been offered to him, and even if one was, he wouldn't accept it.
"I don't see where it would be any advantage to me," Templeton said. "And even if there is a strike, I don't think it would last very long."
The NFL offer also stipulates that, if the players are called into service during a strike, they would be paid the same salary designated in the original contracts they signed as free agents.
Atlanta Falcons chief financial officer Jim Hay said the club approached "a couple of players" Monday with the offer, but he declined to elaborate.
The $1,000 is not a total giveaway. If a player does play during a strike, the money would come out of his previously designated salary. "It's only a contingency plan, and we're all hoping there is not a strike. We're just looking at advance preparation," Gordon said.
Teams are required to reduce their rosters to 60 players by this afternoon.
Donlan anticipated that more contracts will be offered later in the week after released players clear league waivers.
"Obviously, the theory here is that the later you go with the cut dates, there are more players ready to play with that particular team," Donlan said.