CHICAGO — From out of a clear, blue October sky, talks in the 15-day National Football League strike suddenly began again Tuesday. Union head Gene Upshaw and owners' negotiator Jack Donlan met at a "secret" site, reportedly near Washington.
"Jack Donlan and Gene Upshaw met for five fours Tuesday evening," NFL Management Council spokesman John Jones said in a statement from New York. "Free agency was not discussed. Discussions centered on two minor issues--club fines and player discipline.
"Donlan indicated he believes resolution of the outstanding issues will take considerable time. Negotiations will resume Wednesday morning."
The parties hadn't talked in 11 days, and management was insisting that it wouldn't return to the table until the union dropped the free-agency issue. Upshaw had a restive membership on his back, though, and Donlan had low ratings and unhappy TV sponsors to consider.
"I think the pressures are beginning to build on both sides," said Commissioner Pete Rozelle, testifying in Washington at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the league's TV package.
Despite the new, conciliatory tone, there were other notes being heard:
--The owners are now pressing for a five-year contract with the players, instead of a three-year deal coinciding with the length of the league's new TV contract, which had been thought mutually satisfactory.
"We're going back and say we can no longer tie it to television or we'll be back with another strike in another 2 1/2 years," said President Tex Schramm of the Dallas Cowboys, a member of the Management Council's executive committee.
"We'll be going back with a new--they call them demands, we'll say request-- for five years."
But hadn't both sides proposed three years?
"Theirs was for three years," Schramm said. "Before the strike, we said we'd consider it."
Won't that be a new problem?
"Oh yeah," Schramm said. "It's like anything else. The longer the strike goes, the more issues you get."
--The players want last weekend's games, played by management's "replacement" teams, erased from the record.
"The players feel very strongly about that," Upshaw said. "But we're going to bargain."
Said Schramm: "The games count. You can't put the games on and tell people they count and then say, 'Ha, ha, ha, it was all a joke, they don't count.' "
Upshaw announced the resumption of talks at a pre-dawn press conference Tuesday at a hotel near O'Hare Airport in Chicago, where he had just concluded a seven-hour meeting with his player representatives.
Afterward, Atlanta tackle Mike Kenn, a member of the union's executive committee, read a resolution of the participants that suggested, gently, that the player representatives had steered union leadership away from--but still not off--free agency.
"Gene Upshaw listened . . . to views of over 60 player representatives and their teammates, including those who are avid for free agency and those who did not feel it's the highest priority," Kenn said.
"As a result of the discussions, Gene Upshaw gained a good sense of the reps' feelings and made a commitment to the reps that he would not let any single issue hold up an agreement.
"The reps finished the meeting with a unanimous expression of confidence in Upshaw and the players on the executive committee."
Said Cincinnati player representative Boomer Esiason: "If you have substantial improvement in all the other areas and free agency stands alone, then you would say, 'Yeah, you would give it up.' "
There had been speculation that Upshaw had to back off on free agency, or watch a large percentage of his members cross the line. San Francisco's Keena Turner said flatly that the 49ers wanted it dropped entirely. Several other teams, including the Raiders and Bears, took no public position but were reported to be on the verge of it.
According to one source, player representatives from five teams, including the Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots, said that if the union didn't move off free agency, they couldn't stop large numbers of players from returning.
On Tuesday, Raiders Howie Long and Bill Pickel reported to camp, as did veteran 49er tight end Russ Francis.
Upshaw, certainly bolstered by the news he brought that he and Donlan were about to sit down again, instead wound up on a middle road. He didn't give up the issue--he has said for weeks that doing so would cost him leverage on anything else the union wanted--but he said it wouldn't be a deal breaker.
The membership went along, with one or two exceptions. Neither Patriot representative, Lin Dawson or Craig James, was spotted at the everybody-up-on-the-stage press conference. Turner also was absent.
Turner, reached in his hotel room, was asked about free agency.
"They're willing to bargain on it," he said, stonily.
Instead of killing it?
"They're willing to bargain on it," he said again.
Then that wasn't what the 49ers wanted?
"We'll see," he said.