CHICAGO — Striking NFL players, with reports of additional defections imminent, met Monday to determine ways to get management back to the bargaining table, including dropping the sticky issue of free agency from their agenda.
While the union was buoyed by low attendance at the first strike games on Sunday, reports continued that there would be additional defections of veteran players this week to add to the nearly 100 who crossed picket lines in the first two weeks of the strike.
Brian Holloway of the Los Angeles Raiders, a member of the NFL Players Assn., was asked before the meeting whether the union might back away from its free-agency demands in an effort to rekindle talks with management.
"That's what we're here to debate," Holloway said.
"I think there's pressure on both sides now to negotiate," Holloway said. "There's certainly a consensus among the players on the executive committee to get back and bargain. We think after this weekend's games, the momentum is in our favor.
"You saw the American public say that it's not the owners or the people dressed up in team jerseys they come to see. It's the NFL talent and abilities and personalities that make things work."
Mike Davis of the Raiders, also an executive committee member, said the players "want to save the season. We didn't come out here just to stand still. We want to move. It's obvious fan participation wasn't there (Sunday). The owners are astute businessmen. They know it took 67 years for fan support to build. They don't want to see it go away in two weeks."
While the union met at Chicago, five members of the NFL Management Council Executive Committee met for 4 1/2 hours in New York. Chairman Hugh Culverhouse, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said management would be "waiting for tonight's events" at Chicago. "We are willing to go back to the table when free agency is no longer an issue."
Culverhouse said the executive committee could get back together quickly, either in person or by phone, should anything develop.
Culverhouse said Monday the committee had "contacted the competition committee to work out tiebreaking procedures for the 15-game season. The games yesterday do count, as well as all other games this season."
Players returning to their clubs by 1 p.m. EDT Wednesday will be paid for next week's games, Culverhouse said. Last week's reporting deadline was 3 p.m. EDT Friday.
Sunday's strike games were hardly a hit at the box office.
Overall, NFL stadiums that normally fill to 95% of capacity were just 26% filled, including gatherings of just over 4,000 at Detroit and Philadelphia. Those two and four other teams--Seattle, Minnesota, New England and New Orleans--had all-time low attendances and Buffalo its second-lowest.
Television ratings also plummeted.
Figures released Monday by CBS and NBC indicated that ratings declined from 5% to 49% compared with telecasts of regular NFL games two weeks ago.
"There were some competitive games and some good performances, but overall the first week of replacement football was disappointing," said Michael Weisman, executive producer of NBC Sports.
However, CBS spokeswoman Susan Kerr said overnight ratings from major markets around the country were "much greater than we had expected."
Meanwhile, reports continued that teams like San Francisco and the Raiders would return to camp and several players indicated they might be willing to drop the demand for free agency if that would get owners back to the bargaining table.
Mike Singletary, the Chicago Bears' player representative, said his team wouldn't go back in without an agreement. But George Martin of the New York Giants, a member of the union's executive committee, said that if one team went back en masse, the Super Bowl champions would return.
Union head Gene Upshaw said he was willing to listen to any new ideas.
"Gene Upshaw has never represented his view, but represented the players," he said Sunday. "If the players change their mind, it's Gene Upshaw's job to change his mind. We'll get those guys in there and see where they are now. We will look at what player reps are saying. The majority will rule. We have to do what's good for all of us."
The fact that games were played Sunday seemed to discourage some players.
"I never thought they'd get these games going," said Neal Olkewicz, the player representative of the Washington Redskins. "I thought it was just intimidation."