CHICAGO — Hopes of an imminent end to the football strike rose and ebbed in another major American metropolis. Having failed to settle anything with the owners in Philadelphia, the players' brass regrouped Monday night amid reports that their cause is hopeless and hopes that they'll soon surrender.
The National Football League owners are the ones doing the hoping, and perhaps helping with some of the reporting.
The players, however, noting low attendance for the owners' alternate games, don't exactly see it that way yet.
"They're losing," Marvin Powell, NFL Players Assn. president, said of the owners, "and they know it."
Said union Vice President Brian Holloway: "The scales have tipped in our favor. You saw the American people say in very clear terms, the NFL is not just owners and people dressed up in team colors."
Monday's meeting, which was to decide if the union might soften its position on free agency, or give it up, didn't begin until executive director Gene Upshaw arrived at 9:45 p.m. from Houston, where he attended the funeral of his grandmother. It continued into the early hours of the morning, without breaking for such prime publicity opportunities, as a halftime spot on Monday Night Football, so you know they were serious.
"This is a policy meeting," a union spokesman said with gravity.
Is their ship going under, or what? Almost 100 players crossed the line by the weekend and there were reports that the Raiders, Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers were about to come in en masse .
Those have once more been proven wrong, raising the question of just how these scenarios are getting out. Players' sources suspect that Raider owner Al Davis has been dropping hints of massive defections through his usual conduits on the East Coast and the wire services.
Davis is playing so many angles in this thing, it's hard to count them all. He is thought keen to get it over with so he can get on with his one true desire, rebuilding his team.
Davis formulated the so-called West Coast plan, a compromise on free agency that the Management Council ignored for a harder-line stance.
Davis has been reported as turning around his own players who want to cross the picket line--such as Howie Long and Bill Pickel last week--but players' sources say that in reality, Davis' front office has actually been telephoning key Raider players and forcefully importuning them to cross the line, saying that Al will be awfully angry otherwise.
However, if the players then confront Davis directly--as Long and Pickel reportedly did last Friday after crossing the line and practicing--he relents, telling them to make up their own minds. Long and Pickel, reportedly let off the hook in that way, decided to rejoin their striking teammates, walked back out and picketed Sunday's game.
Nor do the Bears seem about to cave in. None of their players have yet crossed the line and 41 of their 45 showed up at the strikers' practice Monday. Player representative Mike Singletary said Sunday they aren't coming back without a contract.
The 49ers? That's another story.
Seven of them, including Joe Montana, Dwight Clark and Roger Craig have announced they will come in this week.
"I hope we didn't come all the way across country for nothing," said Keena Turner, the 49ers' alternate player representative. "Our team has made it clear that we don't care about free agency. We want to move off free agency."
If only the 49ers are saying it out loud, most of the union rank-and-file seems to be just as eager to see the union drop free agency. Players are said to be awaiting the results of this meeting, and if no hope comes out of it, are ready to make a big move across the picket line.
Management continues to stand firm. The Management Council's executive committee met Monday in New York to show how deadly their earnest is, affirming that last weekend's games would count, discussing plans to revamp the tiebreaker rules for a 15-game season, and moving the reporting date for this week's games from Friday up to Wednesday. Players who want to be eligible to play, and to be paid, must cross by then.
The union has been trying to get the owners back to the bargaining table, even entertaining hopes that Jack Donlan might fly to Chicago, but the owners aren't budging on that one, either.
Said a Management Council spokesman: "We're ready to go back to the table whenever free agency is no longer an issue."