NEW YORK — With the union showing possible signs of weakening and the owners ready to resume the National Football League season with replacement players, union chief Gene Upshaw Saturday squelched rumors he was ready to end the strike.
Upshaw, who visited St. Louis Friday as part of a series of meetings with striking players, denied reports that he told the Cardinals he would order the players back to work without a new collective bargaining agreement.
He said the players in the 1,600-member union remain resolved in their bid to gain free agency for four-year players. He added, however, the players have the power to vote to return to work without a contract.
The union was weakened on Friday when 52 players crossed picket lines in order to be listed on rosters and be paid for Sunday's games. In all, 100 players, including 61 on active rosters, have defied the union order to strike.
"We have over 95% of the players still on strike," Upshaw said. "What I said in St. Louis was before I would see the strength of that group eroded I would consider going back without an agreement, if that's what the players wanted."
Upshaw said returning to work without a contract has been an option he has discussed with players this week. Players who remained on strike lost their second paycheck. Today will be the 13th day of the strike.
"The will of the players will determine what we do, not what Gene Upshaw wants," he said. "My job is to fight for the position that they've taken. If they decide at some point in time (to vote to return without a contract), it's up to them."
John Jones, a spokesman for the NFL Management Council, said Saturday the owners would welcome the players back with or without a new agreement. Since negotiations broke off between the two sides on Sept. 25, the owners have concentrated on fielding teams comprised of non-union players.
"That was where we were at when the players went on strike," Jones said. "We asked essentially that they continue to play while we work on it or that they accept mediation, both of which were rejected."
In other news, Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar said the opinions of football fans should be considered in the players' strike.
"Gene (Upshaw) has told us that fan sentiment isn't as big a deal that some people say it is, but I feel the fans do play a big role in the whole nature of professional football," Kosar said.
"A group of us were at the hockey game (Thursday night at the Richfield Colesium) and the fans really let us have it. We got booed a lot and it bothered us."