When the owners and players of the National Football League shook hands last August after a lockout, a strike and weeks of heated bargaining, it was believed all would be well again in a world that is supposed to be violent only on weekends. New player benefits had been agreed upon as had new pension contributions. Certainly the season that followed indicated that pro football was moving into the '70s at the same phenomenal growth rate at which it had left the '60s. Last season over 13 million spectators bought tickets to 264 preseason, regular-season and postseason games. The three networks paid $45 million for TV rights. In fact, the NFL's gross revenue may have gone over $120 million in 1970, up from $107 million in 1969. Not bad for a sport which so many of its entrepreneurs claim is a lousy business.
Regrettably, success at the gate and on the tube doesn't hide the fact that all is not well. The contract agreed upon last August was only drawn up this month. At week's end it was still unsigned, and owner-player relationships haven't substantially improved since last summer. The owners grumble that the players have become greedy and militant. The players say they are no longer willing to be regarded as beasts of burden and charge that the owners have been attempting to bust—or at least to weaken—their Players Association.
The most immediate area of conflict involves the amount of profit each team makes. This isn't easy to determine. Of the 26 NFL clubs only Boston and Green Bay are publicly owned and, because of its peculiar corporate structure, Green Bay doesn't have to account to anyone, including shareholders. Private ownership can hide profit figures more effectively than tax write-offs, amortizations or the commingling of jointly owned enterprises. An owner can simply say that owning a pro team is a fun thing, not a moneymaker. The protesting chorus goes something like this:
Clint Murchison Jr., owner of the Dallas Cowboys: "A man has to be out of his mind to go into pro football to make money. You buy a team because you're kind of an addict."
March 22, 1971
Gerald Phipps, part owner and chairman of the board of the Denver Broncos: "Pro football is not a prudent business investment."
Art Modell, owner and president of the Cleveland Browns: "Operating profits never justify your investment. You've really got to love the game."
The Players Association claims otherwise. Its figures indicate that the 26 AFL and NFL teams as a whole probably made a pre-tax profit of $12.7 million on revenues of $106.7 million during the 1969 season, that the merged league made pre-tax earnings of $22 million on revenues of $122.9 million in 1970 and that by 1973 the pre-tax profit may reach $37.6 million on revenues of $158 million.
"The players' figures are pretty far out," commented NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle last week. "Last year the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen did a study paid for by the players and the owners as an aid in negotiations. I think I recall that the figure for total revenue, based on the 1969 season, was something like $102 million. It was a difficult thing to put together, because each club has different accounting methods. Frankly, I'm in favor of the owners issuing financial statements, putting them on record."
Arthur Andersen computed $11.8 million as the pre-tax and tax write-off profit for all teams in 1969, but apparently wasn't satisfied with the information provided it. In a preamble to its report it states: "The scope of our work did not include all procedures considered necessary under generally accepted auditing standards, and does not permit us to express an opinion on the accompanying statements."
Arthur Andersen's figures for 1969 aren't far under those arrived at by the players, but the players say their estimates are conservative. For the benefit of anyone who, to the contrary, finds these estimates unbelievable, see below:
Item: Green Bay, despite a payroll swollen with salaries to highly paid veterans and one of the smaller stadiums in the NFL (50,810 seating capacity), reputedly made $653,109 in 1969.
Item: Boston, despite having the worst record in the NFL and playing in the smallest stadium (38,000), announced last month that it made a profit of $500,000 in 1970. It has also been recently revealed that two other teams with poor won-lost records have been profitable. In 1968 the Philadelphia Eagles reportedly made about $650,000, and in 1969 Buffalo reportedly made $800,000.
Whatever the evidence, the belief that pro football teeters on the edge of bankruptcy has been sanctified by Congress. In 1966, when the NFL and AFL merged and thus became a monopoly, Congress exempted the new league from antitrust laws. Senate Whip Russell Long (D., La.) and House Whip Hale Boggs (D., La.) were chiefly responsible for the legislation. New Orleans was granted an NFL franchise soon after.
It is the feeling of the players that for years the owners have had it pretty good. They have had a sympathetic press, sympathetic fans, a sympathetic TV audience, a sympathetic Congress—in short, almost an entire nation sympathetic to their claim that pro football isn't a real moneymaker and that, conversely, excessive demands for pension funding and other benefits will bleed the game white. Even the players themselves have been traditionally more eager to play than to argue about money.
"We are up against some of the richest, most powerful men in the country," says a veteran NFL regular, referring to the Murchisons, the Hunts, the Jack Kent Cookes, the Fords, the Rankin Smiths, all multimillionaires who own teams but who possess clout and power extending far beyond the playing fields. "Anyone active in the Players Association has to be careful about what he does and says. You make nothing but enemies in that kind of work, enemies of the wrong people, people who can hurt you."
From each team one player is elected to represent his teammates to the Players Association and to management. He is called the player rep. Most player reps do their job very well, some do it badly, none last in the job very long. The turnover among player reps is high partly because it is a time-consuming job that pays no salary, and who needs it? Partly it is because a great many reps get traded. Most of them are starters, many are All-Pros. Even so, a player rep's chance of being traded, waived or cut is about three times as high as that of a player who minds his own business. Pittsburgh traded away its last two reps, San Francisco traded away three in less than a year. In addition, reps have been demoted to the taxi squad, benched and pressured.
The toll has been particularly high following contract negotiations between the owners and the Players Association. In 1968 a new contract was agreed upon. The AFL players signed quietly. The NFL players went on strike before obtaining a contract they would sign. Within a year six NFL reps had been waived, sold or traded; two others went in 1970. Pittsburgh's rep, John Campbell, was sold to Baltimore; San Francisco's alternate rep, Clark Miller, who had been very active in the negotiations, was traded to the New York Giants; San Francisco's rep, Howard Mudd, a Pro Bowl choice at offensive guard, was traded to Chicago; Atlanta rep Sam Williams was waived out of the league; the Falcons' alternate rep Dan Grimm was traded to Baltimore; and Philadelphia rep John Huarte was traded to Minnesota. In 1970, reps Carl Kammerer and Gary Wood were waived by Washington and cut by the Giants respectively. By the time the negotiations on the 1970 player-owner contract got underway not a single 1968 NFL player rep still served in that capacity.
The attrition continued virtually unabated during and after the 1970 bargaining. San Francisco player rep Kermit Alexander, the team's outstanding cornerback, was traded to Los Angeles. In fact, he was called out of a players Association meeting to receive the news. Following an exceptional season, Pittsburgh rep Roy Jefferson was traded to Baltimore. Dallas rep John Wilbur, a starter at guard, was traded to St. Louis, then to Los Angeles and is now with Washington. Miami rep Dick Westmoreland, a defensive back, was traded to Minnesota and then cut.
Says Rozelle, who regards himself as holding a neutral position between players and owners, "I've never heard any talk at all about players being traded just because they were player reps. I'd have to look at each case separately, but in general most player reps are veterans who've been around for a while. Obviously you're going to have more trading at the ends of the spectrum—rookies and vets. Without looking at each trade, my guess would be that the players in question were all about 29 or 30. [Actually, the average age was 28.] Clubs have different needs. Maybe they're just trying something else or are looking for a youth movement. If you examine each trade on its merits, I think you'll find pretty rational reasons for it."
Rational reasons have been found for some of football's most disastrous trades, but add to the waives, the trades and the cuts those player reps who have come off fine years only to be benched or demoted to the taxi squad, and a long, impressively sinister list can be drawn up. Then there are the harassment campaigns. Dave Robinson, the Green Bay linebacker, and the 49ers' Alexander allegedly provide typical examples.
"Coach Bengtson really got on Robinson during the 1968 season," reports a now-retired Green Bay player whose continuing connections in pro ball inhibit his willingness to be identified. "Bengtson kept chewing Robinson out for not playing well, kept charging that he should have kept his mind on his football playing instead of negotiating pension contracts. It was childish."
In 1968 Kermit Alexander intercepted nine passes and played in the Pro Bowl. In 1969 his days with San Francisco were drawing to a close. "Coach Dick Nolan jumped all over him," says a player still with the 49ers. "We kept asking Kermit 'What's wrong?' but I guess the answer was pretty obvious. They finally had a shouting match during a game. The sad thing is that Nolan is a great guy who is really with the players. He was just caught in the middle."
The obvious result of this harassment campaign is that the Players Association has a hard time finding people willing to be reps. "At our last election the first five nominees declined the honor," a newly elected rep said recently.
"The atmosphere is very bad for us," admits John Mackey, the Baltimore tight end who serves as the Players Association president. "The player reps don't feel really free to do their best. When a player rep gets traded it also disrupts our organization. He has to be replaced. That's why we are now planning to build a strong front office, run by professional administrators and a paid, fulltime executive director. I certainly can't afford to go through another year like 1970."
Mackey's troubles began shortly after his election. The previous contract expired on Feb. 1, 1970, and talks on the new contract started in March. Primarily at management's behest, the meetings up through June took on the look of a luxury tour. Honolulu one week, New York the next. Then Bimini, Miami, Minneapolis, Baltimore and Chicago. "It was costing us something like $4,000 a trip," says Association Business Manager Mai Kennedy. "The Doral Country Club. They always wanted to meet at places like the Doral Country Club."
"We suspected it was deliberately designed to make things difficult for us," adds Ed Garvey, Players Association labor counsel. "They sought to delay, delay, delay in the hopes that the players would start getting nervous about the start of training camps and give in." What the players were asking for was a dramatically increased contribution to the pension fund, as well as improvements in the insurance program, exhibition-game pay and expense reimbursements in other areas. They felt justified in requesting increased benefits on the basis of a much-improved TV contract Rozelle had recently signed, and came armed with statistics proving that the owners could easily afford the new demands. But the owners rejected them and counterproposed a new retirement plan that would actually have reduced their previous commitment. They also suggested that guidelines dealing with grooming and with civic responsibilities undertaken by the players be written into the contract. The owners had traveled 75,000 miles to hold meetings and had produced little more than a request that the players regularly visit the barber.
"They have no respect for our association," says one NFL lineman. "They don't even want to treat us like adults. The oldtimers like Curly Lambeau in Green Bay, George Halas in Chicago, George Marshall in Washington and the Maras in New York came into football because they loved the game. They made money out of football and they exercised an old-fashioned and restrictive paternalism, but at least they respected the players as players. Most of the new owners now buying in have made their fortunes outside of sport. They come into football either because it's a big ego trip or because they see a chance to make some more really big money. They look upon us as dumb jocks who should be happy to accept what they offer."
During the negotiations the owners seemed continually baffled at hearing their players use phrases like "militancy" and "strong and unified." At one point, when the bargaining grew particularly heated, the owners evidently took these phrases at their face value, for they called in security cops for protection—or, at least, so several members of the Players Association contend.
Many of the players claim that security men of another type were being employed by the commissioner's office and that they were being spied upon in various ways. There is scant evidence to support this contention, but a statement made at one point by Tex Schramm, president of the Dallas Cowboys, tends to validate it. Schramm, assisted by Rankin Smith, chairman of the board of the Atlanta Falcons, and George Halas, acted as chief negotiator for the owners. Atone session, Schramm informed members of the players' executive committee that every detail of a recent mass meeting at which the players had finally voted to strike, down to who said what, was known to the owners.
"As far as this office is concerned, stories that we were spying on the players are totally untrue," says Rozelle adamantly. "Rumors of that sort were just part of the atmosphere. People were getting tense and excited. As a matter of fact, one of the players involved in the negotiations left his briefcase in a Washington cab. All the cab driver knew was that it belonged to someone in pro football, so he delivered it to Eddie Williams [Washington President Edward Bennett Williams] at the Redskins' office. Williams knew it probably had something in it that would have been of interest to the owners, but he sent it right over to the player at his hotel without taking a look at it."
"In any negotiation people start getting paranoid and suspicious," explains Labor Lawyer Garvey, "but here an atmosphere of distrust had been created to the point that people began to think that their rooms were being bugged and that they were being spied upon. It makes for poor bargaining."
Last January, the association asked for the resignation of its legal counsel, Alan Miller, on the grounds that he didn't seem to have their cause sufficiently at heart. Miller's exit may have been brought about by a Mata Hari. During the summer of 1970 Miller had been introduced to an aspiring young actress by someone close to Cowboy Owner Clint Murchison. A romance blossomed. Miller, who was divorced, flipped on the girl to the point where he told friends he was contemplating another marriage. But when the negotiations were finally concluded, the girl was suddenly too busy to see him.
The players were vulnerable in other areas. "They really creamed us in the PR battle," claims an aggrieved player rep who is still receiving hate mail from angry fans. "Rozelle has an office full of PR guys and a Telex machine with direct connections to each of the 26 team offices. After a complex negotiating session the owners could have their statement in the hands of newspapers all over the country before we'd even made it to a typewriter. What's indicative of the power of management's communications system is the fact that everyone in the country knows that each player on the Colts made $15,000 by winning the Super Bowl, but nobody knows what the owners got. Because we stood up on our own two legs, we were effectively painted in the public mind as the villains in the black hats."
The players cite two major instances to support this contention. At one negotiating session they agreed to automatically lower their pension demands if league revenues from the sale of TV rights and stadium tickets declined instead of increased, as projected. Contributions to the pension fund would be reduced $1 for every $3 of lost revenue. The next day, infuriated fans read that the players were now suggesting that their pension be funded from an increase in ticket prices.
The second PR punch stemmed from confusion concerning the pension itself. In late summer the owners released a set of figures purporting to be what a football player would receive upon retirement if just what the owners were prepared to contribute each year to the pension fund—$4.5 million—was accepted. The projection started at $8,280 per year for a veteran with five years service who wanted to draw retirement pay starting at 55 and topped out at $59,940 for a 15-year man retiring at 65.
With sensational figures like these to contend with, the Players Association rebuttals had little effect. Virtually in vain, it attempted to explain that benefits such as these could only accrue to players beginning their rookie year in 1970 provided that the 1,750 currently active and retired players already entitled to benefits did not receive any upgrading in the previous plan; that only about one player in a thousand lasts 15 years in pro football; that only about one in two survives five years: and that a realistic figure would be $1,000 per month for a 10-year veteran who retired at 65.
The players contend that one reason for the long delay in drawing up the contract is that each owner has only a fuzzy idea of how his colleagues are running their clubs. They are 26 separate and distinct entities as far as collective bargaining is concerned, each uninformed and disorganized, their communication with one another as bad as their communication with the media is good.
Another stumbling block was that while the players would come into the meetings armed with appropriate facts and figures, the owners hadn't done their homework. "We'd make a proposal and back it up with figures," says Lawyer Garvey, "and they'd say, "Gosh, we didn't know all that. We need more time to think about it.' Then they'd come back two weeks later and be completely unresponsive."
"Part of the trouble is that the owners look to Rozelle as the knight on the white charger," says John Mackey, "but they hate it when he comes galloping in and saves them. It makes them look bad. Therefore, even when it's impossible for them to really get together they'll go to any lengths to try and work things out on their own before calling on Rozelle to get things organized."
Another impediment was that the owners recently introduced several brand new items. One was that coaches, trainers and equipment managers should be covered by the $4.8 million set aside for the players' pension fund. The owners also wanted a no-strike clause. They finally dropped this request, but provoked a player-owner dialogue that the players found extraordinarily naive.
Said the players: Without being entitled to strike, what redress would we have?
Said the owners: Arbitration.
Said the players: And who would be the arbitrator?
Said the owners: Pete Rozelle.
In addition, the owners insisted that the contract, which has a life of four years, forecloses negotiations on new issues that might arise, such as pay TV or further league expansion. The players insisted that such a foreclosure was never agreed upon and in the end the new stipulations were omitted. The signing wasn't forthcoming, however, because at week's end Tex Schramm had the contract and he was incommunicado on Rozelle's yacht. His last word to the Players Association was that he "wanted a few things clarified."