These are the key issues facing Gene Upshaw and Jack Donlan (below) as they negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement between the Players Association and NFL management:

The NFL's current free-agent system, in place since 1977, has been anything but free. A club retains the right of first refusal on a player whose contract has expired and, depending on the player's salary and experience, is entitled to compensation—draft choices—if it fails to match another team's offer. As a result, only one of the 3,250 players eligible for free agency since '77 has changed teams. The union wants to eliminate management's rights of first refusal and compensation. The owners are willing to modify the compensation equation but refuse to scrap it, pointing to the 142% rise in salaries since 1981 as proof that the system works. The union responds that NFL players are still earning about half of what basketball and baseball players make.

According to a management proposal, rookies would receive a specific base salary ($50,000 the first year, $55,000 the second) plus bonuses based on how high they are chosen in the draft and on the length of their contracts (minimum two years, maximum four). The intent is that owners would spend the savings on veteran players. While the NFLPA is all for more money for vets, it fears that a wage scale could become an incentive for coaches to cut older (read highly paid) players and replace them with younger (cheaper) talent.

The union argues that half of all major league baseball players' contracts and 95% of NBA contracts are guaranteed, compared with only 4% in the NFL. The NFLPA wants all contracts to be honored for their duration, regardless of what happens to the players. Management says that guaranteed contracts would inflate payrolls and render some players "uncoachable."

Management denies harassing players involved in union activity; the NFLPA notes that six player reps have been released, traded or asked to retire since this spring.