As if to match step with the rest of the sporting world, pro football is now promising its own off-field controversy, a strike by all NFL players. If such a thing does happen this summer as a result of demands now being made by the Players' Association, many of the club owners are in a mood to lock the gates, deflate the footballs and look for a less expensive hobby. That was the feeling that emerged from four days of NFL-AFL meetings in Atlanta last week, and the owners' committee did not seem inclined toward a much softer attitude as new meetings with the Players' Association began this week in Manhattan.
Commissioner Pete Rozelle is one of the few who has been talking optimistically. "I feel that our players and owners are too intelligent and think too much of the sport not to be able to work out a solution," says Rozelle, who is supposed to represent both sides in the dispute. "The owners' expressed desire is that they wish to be fair and reasonable, and I'm sure the players view it the same way."
However, for the owners to understand the players these days is like a chicken trying to understand a hard-boiled egg. "It's all changed now," one owner said sadly, as he came out of the final meeting with his peers in Atlanta. "That's very hard for us to accept. In the first meeting we had with the Players' Association representatives a few weeks ago they told us, 'You're not Big Daddy anymore. We're all equal now.'
"The players are thinking only about today. They have no responsibility for carrying on the game," the owner continued. "Here they are, making an average of about $20,000 for playing a game for half a year, and they think people will have sympathy for them. They only have to play for five years to get a pension of more than $400 a month, and they come to meetings and curse our committee. They don't understand the first thing about business practices or return on investment. They have completely erroneous ideas about the financial aspects of the game.
"So do we fear a strike? Yes, it's a definite possibility. But it's impossible to predict. If they do strike, it might be against one team or against one game or against the whole league. The owners are prepared to cancel whatever games are necessary, to have a lockout. Some might be prepared to go into another business. This one is fun, but the risks are high and the return is small."
Players' Association President John Gordy of the Detroit Lions, Attorney Dan Shulman from Chicago and an inner council of player representatives from a number of different clubs are asking for a $15,000 annual minimum salary (it is now $5,000), $500 per player in salary for exhibition games (players now get $10 a day) and an increase in the pension fund from $1.3 million to $5 million.
Essentially this is what the players say: the owners average a gross income of $3.5 million per club. They have $1.1 million left after taxes and $800,000 each after all expenses. In 1966, for instance, Green Bay reported a gross income of $3,094,000 exclusive of the playoff and the Super Bowl, which added another $290,000 to their take. The players' argument is that if the third smallest stadium in the league can do it, what about the other guys? "It's like the argument against paying players $500 for an exhibition game," says Gordy. "The owners say it is unreasonable. But then, what is reasonable? Show us in black and white that it isn't reasonable and we'll listen. That's all we ask. A player gets $10 a day in training camp. It figures out to $490 for the seven weeks. In that time you play about five games. That makes it less than a hundred bucks a game. And some games—like the doubleheader at Cleveland—they have 80,000 fans and national television. It is unrealistic to think that a team can't afford a little bigger payroll."
To be sure of backing, Gordy and Shulman have visited a number of NFL cities to explain the situation to players living in the area. There has also been a telephone poll among players of the various teams seeking sanction for a possible strike.
The situation has been building in the NFL for more than two years. First the Teamsters tried to organize professional football players into a union and failed. Then the Players' Association decided to take a militant role in the cutting up of what appears to be the NFL's annual bonanza (the AFL, whose Players' Association president is Buffalo Quarterback Jack Kemp, has so far kept out of the argument).
NFL owners claim that when the truth is revealed—as they say it will begin to be in the meetings this week—the player demands will be shown to be unrealistic. The demands are based upon a report submitted by an accounting firm hired by the players. The firm was, of course, denied a look at the NFL's ledgers, and so produced an estimate that NFL clubs earn an average of $1.5 million each per year before taxes.
The NFL owners have now hired their own CPA and have opened their books to him. What they will exhibit to the players is the NFL's statement broken down in financial rankings into the top five teams, the bottom five and the middle six. The teams will not be identified by name, but the players will have little trouble guessing identities even if they should have a bit of trouble believing what they read.
Most NFL teams play to capacity crowds, and it is well known that each club gets more than $1 million per year in television revenue from CBS, but expenses are tremendous, the owners contend. A club budget can easily reach $3 million per year. In 1966, for example, the Dallas Cowboys drew the two biggest regular-season money gates in NFL history and made more money on the road than any other team in the league, but Owner Clint Murchison Jr. said his team showed a net profit of less than $350,000. "If we gave in to all the player demands, at least five teams would immediately be put into a losing position," says Cowboy President Tex Schramm.
"Paying a $500 salary for exhibition games is preposterous," says John Mecom Jr., owner of the New Orleans Saints. "If you have 60 players on your roster in the preseason, that's $30,000 right there for one game. For many exhibition games, you don't even get that large a check."
Theodore Kheel, the noted labor-relations counselor, flew to Atlanta last week to confer with the NFL owners. The NFL's Player Relations Committee, which met with the player representatives this week, is composed of Art Modell of Cleveland, Rankin Smith of Atlanta, Wellington Mara of New York and Vince Lombardi of Green Bay. "If you can imagine, say, a player pounding on the table and telling Vince Lombardi what he has to do," says one league official, "then you can imagine how concerned we all are about what might happen."
There is speculation that a strike, if it comes, might hit the annual exhibition doubleheader in Cleveland.
"It would be a terrible day for a great game," Modell says. "But I guess we would have to take a day off." For Modell and the rest of the owners, it could be a very expensive holiday.