The NFL Players Association wants any agreement it might reach with management to be sanctioned by the court hearing the union's antitrust suit against the NFL.

But the court that is overseeing the antitrust suit has already urged that the pro football labor dispute be settled through collective bargaining and not litigation.Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFLPA, said on Tuesday, the day after the union was thwarted by the courts in its attempt to win free agency for 300 players, that he wants the courts to have the last word on any settlement.

"The context for a settlement has to be the settlement of the lawsuit," Upshaw said.

Such an endorsement would seem to be automatic because U.S. District Court Judge David Doty, before whom the antitrust suit was filed, consistently has urged that the dispute be settled by collective bargaining. He repeated that call on Monday in a decision in which he refused to grant free-agent status for those unsigned players whose contracts expired last Feb. 1.

Doty held that such a ruling "could have a devastating, long-term impact on the competitive balance within the league."

But at the same time, the judge set in motion preparations for a trial on the antitrust suit and added: "The court finds it probable that the players will prevail at trial and that at least some of the players are likely to sustain irreparable harm if they are not immediately permitted to sign with other NFL clubs."

There was no apparent movement on the labor front Tuesday.

Upshaw spent the morning testifying at a National Labor Relations Board hearing stemming from one of the many complaints filed during the 24-day strike that ended last Oct. 15. He said he had not spoken with management.

And both sides seemed to be taking their time to analyze Doty's 16-page ruling and its ramifications.

One management source, for example, suggested things might begin moving after "a 24-to-48-hour cooling-off period."

And Upshaw, who outlined the ruling to player representatives in a conference call Monday night, said: "At this point, we haven't had a chance to digest what's going on. We want to understand the decision first, get back to our constitutents."

But outside pressure seemed to be building for a settlement. "Let's sit down and crack out a deal," said Art Modell of the Cleveland Browns, one of the league's more influential owners but not a member of the Management Council.

"There's no victory until we sign a contract and put this behind us and go about playing football."

Said punter Sean Landeta of the New York Giants, who would have been free to negotiate with any team had Doty ruled differently: "I just think the 1,600 players in the league have to be genuinely told what's being offered because I know that we want to sign an agreement and play ball."

Several sources suggested that to make progress, the sides might try to resume talks in absolute secrecy, declining even to acknowledge that they were taking place.

In fact, Management Council spokesman John Jones said Tuesday that the feeling of the owners is "we want to take the process out of the media."

Of the two sides, the owners seemed more interested in talking.