The NFL's five-year labor war will reach a climax today.
Either the two sides reach an agreement on their own or federal judge David Doty will make a ruling on the future of free agency.
That was the warning from Doty after he spent six fruitless hours trying to bridge the gap between NFL owners and players yesterday.
Doty, who presided over the trial in Minneapolis last fall when the NFL's Plan B free-agency restrictions were ruled a violation of antitrust laws, asked the two sides not to comment to the media.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and representatives for the owners then left for a meeting in Dallas today, where the owners will have one last chance to accept the tentative settlement that Tagliabue made on Dec. 22, but the owners have refused to ratify.
Meanwhile, Doty, who rarely comments to reporters, called them into his chambers, and said, "Tomorrow [today], if they don't come together, all bets are off. I will rule [today] if they don't reach an agreement. There will be an order issued."
He added: "If you've ever done these kinds of things, you know that there's a certain time it's got to work and certain times that if you wait too long, it doesn't work. I think everyone here, including me, believes [today] is the crucial time."
In explaining why he asked both sides not to comment, he said, "The parties are still working. I want them to continue to work without any interference. It's in a very, very sensitive area of negotiations. They're going to report back to me tomorrow . . . by telephone."
In addition to Tagliabue, three owners on the seven-member Management Council -- Al Davis of the Los Angeles Raiders, Wellington Mara of the New York Giants and Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers -- attended the meeting with the league's lawyers.
Jim Quinn, the attorney for the players, and Gene Upshaw, the head of the NFL PLayers Association, headed the players' team.
Doty said, "The parties worked very, very hard, both together and separately, to try to reach an agreement. I'm trying to close the gap so that they touch their hands. As soon as they touch their hands, they can start shaking them."
A source close to the talks said that Doty acted as if he were a mediator, meeting with both sides individually and then bringing them together.
The problem is that the players feel they already made a deal with Tagliabue on Dec. 22 when the "tentative settlement" was announced -- and that the owners have reneged on it. The players feel they compromised in giving the owners a salary cap that clubs can't exceed even to sign their own players, and four free-agent exemptions in the first two years to free agency. They feel they'd rather take their chances in court rather than make any more concessions.
A hard-line faction of owners, led by Davis, feels that Tagliabue went too far in his dealings with the players.
"Paul gave away too much, but we've straightened him out," said one owner.
The issue that has become the sticking point is a signing deadline for free agents. The players want an unsigned player to be free to sign with any club after training camp. The owners want an unsigned player bound to his team until after the season.