NEW YORK — More than 100 striking National Football League players bolted the picket line and rejoined their teams Wednesday as union and management sources speculated that an interim settlement bringing players back to work was imminent.
Faced with the largest one-day defection since the walkout began Sept. 22, union leader Gene Upshaw spoke twice by telephone with Jack Donlan, chief negotiator for the owners. Upshaw also held a conference call late Wednesday with player representatives from the 28 teams.
"I see a lot of activity, but I don't like saying a break is definite. That would be too strong," said Tex Schramm, president of the Dallas Cowboys and a member of the Management Council's executive committee. "There is a chance something might happen."
In Washington, a union official, also confirmed that there is a chance of a major breakthrough in the walkout. In San Francisco, Keith Fahnhorst, player representative for the 49ers, told reporters to expect "important information" about the strike.
If a settlement is reached, it would likely be a temporary agreement that would bring the players back to their teams while negotiations continued for a new collective bargaining agreement.
Players returning by a 1 p.m. EDT deadline set by management were eligible to receive their weekly paychecks and play in this weekend's games, the third week of non-union play.
The NFL Management Council reported 109 players rejoined their clubs Wednesday, bringing the total number of players who have defied the union to 260, or 16% of the 1,585-player union.
With the strike in its 23rd day, several prominent players crossed the picket line, including Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, who was voted the NFL's outstanding player last year.
Also reporting to their teams were John Stallworth and Donnie Shell of Pittsburgh, Steve Largent of Seattle, Kevin Ross of Kansas City and Ozzie Newsome of Cleveland.
Taylor based his decision to return on the Giants' poor play and his financial situation.
"I wasn't going to sit back and watch the Giants lose and lose a lot of money," said Taylor, who estimated he lost $162,000 during the walkout. "I don't have many friends on this team but the guys I consider my friends will be my friends when this is over. As for the rest of the team, we're a working family."
Eleven striking Steelers reported for practice with the substitute team and 10 Raiders returned. Only one team, the Washington Redskins, has had no union defectors since the strike began. The Raiders have 26 players back, the most of any team.
Ross became the first member of the Chiefs to break ranks. The cornerback had returned home to New Jersey when the strike began, but after sitting for three weeks he flew back to Kansas City to cross the picket line.
"This is not a favor to (Chiefs' owner) Lamar Hunt," Ross said. "This is not a favor to (Chiefs' Coach) Frank Gansz. This is a favor to Kevin Ross.
"I said I was going to stay home for the duration of the strike. But that wasn't me. I was home interior decorating, putting carpets and floors down. I wasn't doing what my livelihood is. Sundays weren't Sundays anymore."
Quarterback Jeff Kemp returned to the Seahawks. His father, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), a 1988 Republican presidential candidate and former Buffalo Bills' quarterback, helped organize the first American Football League players' union in 1965 and served as its president.
The defections came a day after club owners rejected the union's proposal of arbitration as a way to settle the contract dispute.
The union threatened Monday night to strike the rest of the season unless the owners agree to mediation and, if necessary, arbitration to reach a new collective bargaining contract to replace the contract that expired Aug. 31.
"We are not going to arbitrate our system away," said Donlan, executive director of the NFL Management Council. "We don't want an outsider to tell us what to do."
The sides have settled 8 of 38 issues in an attempt to negotiate the new agreement. Donlan and Upshaw agreed on minor issues last week. But every major issue--free agency, pension, drug testing and guaranteed contracts--remained unresolved.
Management recently called for a six-year agreement. However, the players want to renegotiate the financial part of the agreement at the end of the current three-year television contract.
The three networks plan to televise non-union games this weekend. Television ratings from Sunday's games declined from the previous week. However, attendance at 13 games was 325,545, about one-third of the league's capacity, compared with 220,828 Oct. 4 on the first Sunday of non-union play.
The players have struck the league five times the past two decades, including a 57-day walkout in 1982.