PHILADELPHIA — Room service was the order of the day as National Football League management and union negotiators holed up inside a midtown hotel until the wee hours Thursday in search of an agreement that could end the two-day-old player strike.
Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Assn., and Jack Donlan, chief negotiator of the NFL Management Council, with accompanying entourages, spent most of the day and night discussing assorted issues--most notably free agency. The union wants a vastly modified version of the present system, while management clings, in essence, to a way of life.
"The sticking point is the union's demand of unrestricted movement," said John Jones, Management Council spokesman. "The owners have said they feel a settlement is achievable in all areas except the union's demand on free agency."
With this in mind, Upshaw and Donlan arrived in Philadelphia early Wednesday afternoon to discuss, for the first time, really, a possible compromise as well as a way to avoid the use of replacement players and the loss of this weekend's regularly scheduled games.
While no official announcement has been made, the league office, as it did during the 1982 player strike, is expected to decide today if it will continue with NFL Week No. 3. If the strike continues, NFL teams plan to use non-union players beginning Oct. 4.
Already, Donlan has made it clear that he thinks two days' worth of talks will determine if the trip was worth the effort. "If that's the case, (Donlan) would know right now," said Marvin Powell, union president.
"Right now, it's just going very slowly," Powell said during a late-evening break. "Hopefully, we'll all be back to work very soon."
Tex Schramm, a member of the management negotiating team, didn't share Powell's optimism. "We reiterated our position, and they reiterated their desire to have change," Schramm said when the meeting finally broke up at 2:20 a.m., EDT, today. "But I think we have made it clear that we are not giving up our structure."
Talks will resume at 10 a.m., EDT, today.
Wednesday's meeting was arranged by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, no longer the celebrated "mystery man" but a welcome addition to the heretofore stalemated negotiations.
However, at least one management source closely involved in Wednesday's negotiations said progress was slow--at times, negligible.
And Jones said: "I don't want to convey any sense of false hope or expectation. There is dialogue and there is discussion. But there is no sense that a settlement is at hand."
Both Upshaw and Donlan brought along lots of company. Included in the union caravan were Dick Berthelsen, the NFLPA legal counsel; Brian Holloway, Raider tackle and union vice president; Frank Woschitz, public relations director, and executive committee members Mick Luckhurst and Mike Kenn (both Atlanta Falcons), James Lofton (Raiders), Mike Davis (former Raider) and Powell.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, New York Giants defensive lineman George Martin and former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Michael Jackson--all members of the committee--also are expected to attend in a show of union strength. And at least six Philadelphia Eagles, led by player representative John Spagnola, made appearances in the hotel lobby.
"(Union negotiators) like to see the players," Spagnola said. "They get pumped up when they see players."
Meanwhile, Donlan had Jim Conway, the management council's assistant executive director; Sarge Karch, a labor negotiation consultant; Schramm, president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, and Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Rooney was partly responsible for ending the 57-day NFL strike in 1982.
Negotiations began at about 2:30 p.m., EDT, and continued, off and on, until about 6:30. Then came a short break, more talks, a 10 p.m. dinner, and a return to the bargaining table until 2:20 a.m. Under the adopted format, union representatives occupy one room, management negotiators occupy another, and a third room is used for specific negotiations between Upshaw and Donlan.
At the base of the discussions is the union's demand for legitimate free agency. According to NFLPA figures, 1,415 players have become free agents since the 1982 Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed. But not one player, under the current compensation system, has moved to a another team.
The union, among other things, wants the owners to relinquish the right of first refusal or compensation for those free agents with at least four years of NFL service. Management has said that right of first refusal is, for now, non-negotiable but that compensation requirements could be relaxed.
"That's the key issue," Jones said. "The management council's position on free agency has not changed."
Not yet. Maybe by lunch?
"There's talking," Powell said, "and that's most important."
But what about Week 3's games?
Said Schramm: "I wouldn't be encouraged that this weekend's games are going to be played."