National Football League
If past is a guide, more pain to come
National Football League

If past is a guide, more pain to come

Published Mar. 3, 2011 12:00 a.m. ET

There is a major difference between the players’ stance in the current labor situation and their stance during their two work stoppages in the 1980s.

Back then, they were fighting for free agency, a competition for their services that ultimately pushed their salaries and benefits skyward. Now, they are fighting simply to maintain the status quo of their past gains.

The strikes of 1982 and 1987 solved nothing, except to upset everyone involved with the NFL. Essentially, the owners won both strikes.

Yes, they lost millions in revenue ($200 million for seven lost weekends in ’82), but they were aided by an anti-union climate in the country under President Ronald Reagan and also the union’s lack of unity and resolve. In 1987, many a superstar broke ranks with the “middle class” player earning the median salary of $170,000 as the owners’ idea of replacement games actually succeeded with the fans and was accepted by the television networks, who demanded only a slight refund on their new $1.4 billion contract.


The National Labor Relations Board was also slow to act on behalf of the players in 1987, and it took the NFLPA’s decertification 22 years ago to finally attain free agency, thanks to a favorable federal court ruling in the Freeman McNeil lawsuit.

At midnight tonight, the union seems to be on the same course — to decertify and negate the NFL’s lockout attempt of the players — while hoping to maintain a 60 percent share of almost all of the league’s $9 billion revenue through a series of antitrust lawsuits against ownership. The big gamble is that lawsuits and the inevitable appeals process take time, something the fans don’t want to see because it could jeopardize the 2011 season.

I mean, it took years — the union decertified in 1989 after players lost the 1987 strike — but a new collective bargaining agreement wasn’t approved by both sides until 1993, after the players were victorious in Judge David Doty’s Minneapolis federal court.

The owners finally agreed to an unrestricted free-agency plan in 1993 and improved pension and health benefits. This was after the league’s attempt at a more restrictive free-agency proposal known as Plan B, which was favorable to the clubs, was shot down by the courts.

The owners proceeded to extend the '93 agreement five different times, the last in 2006. However, this time the owners want to drastically alter the expired CBA deal by instituting a rookie salary cap, extending the regular season from 16 to 18 games and drastically reducing the players’ share of the $9 billion revenue pie.

By decertifying, the union is hoping it has a better legal team than the NFL. The players already won one round this week from Judge Doty in regard to this season’s network television payments. A hearing on that issue, one that possibly could freeze the TV payments due to the league even if there are no games this season, is pending.

The NFL was way behind baseball in 1982, when the average football salary was $90,102. Ed Garvey was head of the union then, and he demanded 55 percent of the gross revenues, less than what the players now receive after success in 1993. The players walked off the job and ultimately lost 57 days of the season. To recoup some of their lost income, they played two all-star games to dismal results. Less than 6,000 fans showed for such a game in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Knowing that the players might walk out again, the owners were better prepared for the 1987 strike. They missed only one week of the season as veterans walked out, only to play “replacement” games the following week with non-union players. I called them scabs and covered the Los Angeles Shams for three games that season.

Yes, the television ratings and attendance drastically dropped during the first week of replacement games, but they gradually improved as certain star players crossed the line. Seattle’s Hall of Fame receiver, Steve Largent, crossed the picket line and had the greatest game of his career (261 receiving yards). Hollywood made a movie of the silly replacement games where big guys literally off the street were signed to $1,000 weekly salaries. Current Saints coach Sean Payton crossed the picket lines to play quarterback for the Bears. But, basically, the strike ended because most of the wealthier players broke ranks with the middle-class players, those fighting for free agency and larger salaries.

There was solidarity with some teams, like in Philadelphia, where the Teamsters marched the picket line with the Eagles. In 1987, the average NFL salary was $230,000 and many a star was earning much more than $1 million because salaries had increased thanks to a rival professional league, the USFL, playing in the mid-1980s.

The USFL was already out of business in 1987, but it helped stars like Buffalo’s Jim Kelly, San Francisco’s Joe Montana and the Rams’ Eric Dickerson to earn huge salaries. Montana and his famous receiver teammate, Dwight Clark, crossed the picket line to play for the San Francisco Phony Niners, but Kelly and Dickerson did not cross during the 24-day strike. Those two players lost as much in salary in four lost game checks as most of their teammates earned in an entire season.

There were actual fisticuffs on the picket lines. Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, then a striking linebacker with the Kansas City Chiefs, pummeled Otis Taylor, a former great receiver with the Chiefs, who was working for the club and escorting scab players into the Kansas City’s practices. There were also reports that some striking Chiefs threatened replacement players with shotguns and sliced the tires on their cars.

The strike forever damaged the locker room of the Dallas Cowboys after defensive lineman Randy White almost ran over Tony Dorsett on the picket line with his pickup truck. The late Tex Schramm, the Cowboys’ general manager, pointed out to his star players that they would lose the annuities on their long-term contracts if they didn’t play. The Cowboys were so wrecked emotionally by the strike that they finished the season 7-8 and then slipped to 3-13 the next year, Tom Landry’s final season as head coach. A week after White crossed the picket line; Dorsett followed him onto the field.

What was amazing was that Washington’s mostly “scab” team beat the veteran Cowboys in a regular-season game. In fact, the Redskins went 3-0 during the replacement games and went on to win the Super Bowl. Interestingly, that franchise also won the championship after the ’82 season. The Redskins simply went out and bought the best talent available in preparation for the replacement games.

No one knows how the current owner-vs.-player disagreement will be settled. Many believe the owners are very serious about increasing their share of the profits, preferring to keep $2 billion of the $9 billion total and then splitting the remainder 50-50. They talk of stadium-debt issues, knowing that local economies will no longer approve tax-supported stadiums, plus the fear of not wanting to price out fans from attending games. Yes, television revenues are setting records, but the owners are fearful of turning their sport into a studio game because many fans can’t afford to purchase tickets.

And, like the rest of the country, the NFL and its teams sound prepared to get out of the pension and health-care business for their thousands of employees over the next five years. Like every other corporation, they are looking to cut costs.

If there is a lockout and the late April draft proceeds as scheduled, it could prove financially harmful to the record 495 free agents among the players. Teams might fill their personnel needs via the draft, leaving little leverage for those veterans without a contract and hoping to sign a big deal with a new team. The draft could alter that landscape, and it’s something most coaches and club executives have always wanted: Build through the draft and then secure the veteran free agents where needed. Under the old system, free agency came first and some players benefited from the bidding war for their services.

Both sides have a lot to lose. The average NFL salary is almost $2 million and the minimum rookie salary is $325,000 this season, or eight times the average American’s household income. A club executive gave me that statistic to illustrate that maybe fans will be torn about which side to support during a protracted work stoppage.

The owners are banking that 20 percent of the players haven’t saved properly for a strike and that if the lockout extends to September the players will crack like they did in 1987.


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