Last Sunday evening John Gordy, the Detroit Lion guard and president of the NFL Players' Association, and Arthur Modell, the NFL president and owner of the Cleveland Browns, announced after a meeting at New York's Waldorf-Astoria that the player strike (or owner lockout) was over.
Said Gordy, in a conciliatory spirit, "We wanted to be heard and we wanted a voice, but never, never wanted to use our own strength unjustly."
In April, when the 600-odd men who make up the Players' Association embarked upon what became the most notable strike (or lockout) in the history of American sport, they might have felt they could rock pro football's boat a little, but they never dreamed they had the strength to sink it. Indeed, the Players' Association was not set up to conduct a strike and its members were astonished that things went so far and so greatly to their benefit.
A couple of years ago outsiders—primarily the Teamsters—had talked of unionizing professional football players; most of the players ridiculed this as being both unimaginable and basically antagonistic to a way of life where, supposedly, everyone is rewarded solely on how well he plays the game.
July 21, 1968
To keep the unions out, the Players' Association, which had been a largely fraternal organization, took upon itself the job of speaking up to the owners. The main spokesman was Gordy, a three-time All-NFL selection. Alas, although Gordy has many estimable qualities, the knack of easy and concise communication is not one of them.
Last January, Gordy joined forces with an obscure Chicago labor lawyer named Dan Shulman and took a telephone poll of the players. The result made him confident enough to predict a strike unless 21 conditions were met. The owners were less than terrorized by this forecast. They looked upon the players as a bunch of big, old boys with crew cuts who wore short-sleeved shirts and two-toned shoes. But since the owners looked last, many of the players have switched to long "burns," Nehru jackets and beads. As one NFL flanker said, "Although the players can't talk to each other very well, the owners can't talk to us at all because they are so accustomed to talking down to us. If an owner likes you, he treats you like his favorite dog."
That the players didn't relish a dog's life became evident in their first meetings with the owners, but the owners failed to get the message. "Don't push us too far," one told his star quarterback, "or we'll stop operations without batting an eye." And they blustered that if the veterans went on strike they would play with rookies, who are not members of the Players' Association. However, CBS, which has about $20 million invested in the NFL this season, was not amused and indicated that old movies or some fairly spirited croquet matches would be preferable to bucking the AFL games on NBC with adolescents.
After many up-tight meetings marked by foul language and obstinacy, both sides broke off, and professional sport had its first real strike (or lockout) since 1890, when 80% of the National League's regulars walked out and formed their own baseball league.
By then the players had already amazed themselves by forcing the owners to bargain satisfactorily on 20 of the 21 points, which became nearly as celebrated as Luther's 95 theses. The owners did not give in on each of these, though that was the impression they managed to leave. Dave Robinson, the Green Bay linebacker, explained, "There were a lot of points that we came down on. For instance, on preseason game pay—we're not getting $500 a game. Then take the minimum wage—we're not getting $15,000 a year."
Three of the points were purely technical, four were financial, four involved individual rights and 10 concerned the rights of members of the association as a union. Among them were the right to recompense for veterans who have been fired, permission to have counsel when bargaining for individual contracts, the right to take part in league decisions, acceptance of the union, an increased out-of-town meal allowance and permission for players to purchase two good tickets to a game before public sale begins.
But the issue that brought the strike (or lockout) about was the pension fund. The players felt the owners had not been truthful in saying the fund was non-contributory, when the money for it came from the championship game, endorsements and the All-Star Game. Moreover, the players insisted on a pension plan comparable to baseball's. "Ours is so inferior it's outrageous," said Robinson. "We don't want to match baseball but we'd like to have ours at a decent level." However, at times debate wasn't at that level. At one players' meeting the pension of Walter (No Neck) Williams, the utility outfielder for the Chicago White Sox, was the chief topic. "When we heard what No Neck's going to get, we voted to beat him up and take his share," said one NFL player.
However, after the first telephone vote authorizing a strike, communications failed between the bulk of the players and Gordy. "They sent out a white paper from player headquarters in New York which detailed our grievances and told what we were to vote on," said Tackle Bob Wetoska of the Chicago Bears. "The only trouble was that it arrived in the mail two days after the vote was taken. I don't mean that the players didn't have a general understanding of what it was all about, but when somebody calls you up at 5:30 in the morning and wants you to vote on something, you're bound to be a little fuzzy-headed about it. And this is the way it worked all over the country. When 16 ball clubs are concerned and there are 80 or so guys making phone calls in the middle of the night, there could be some miscommunication."
Worse than that, before the confused players had a chance to throw picket lines around their training camps, the owners beat them to it by shutting the camps down indefinitely, which meant about 24 hours, for their next move was to reopen them to rookies and free agents. In turn, many of the veterans established their own training camps—what might be called Freedom Camps.
But last week it appeared that the players' resolve was weakening, mostly because all they knew was what they read in the papers, which was that the owners had conceded on 20 out of the 21 points. Whereupon the Players' Association called several press conferences to show solidarity and the owners agreed to the confrontation at the Waldorf. After only 4½ hours, the new pension plan was revealed: a 10-year veteran, for example, will get $1,600 a month when he reaches 65, compared to $750 a month under the previous agreement. As Gordy had said, "It's about time the players sat down as players and the owners sat down as owners and reached a final agreement. Let's get down to the business of playing football." For once he was coming in loud and clear and everyone got the message.