A few weeks ago Tim Anderson, who played defensive halfback for Ohio State last year and was San Francisco's No. 1 pick in the college draft, became so depressed by the 49ers' refusal to negotiate on his contract that he sent a telegram to the club (with a copy to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, among other pertinent correspondence) asking to be released so that he might negotiate with other teams.
At about the same time, his Ohio State teammate, Tight End Jan White, a second-round pick, was calling negotiations with the Buffalo Bills "a bad scene, the worst experience I've ever had." White says he may chuck pro football and go for a master's in criminology.
Anderson and White are not alone in their discontent. For example, Steve Worster, the Texas All-America who was the Rams' fourth-round choice, said he was "disgusted" with the way his negotiations were going and signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. Los Angeles' No. 1 pick, Isiah Robertson, the black Dick Butkus from Southern University, complained he was being treated like a free agent but signed anyway. He had little choice. Archie Manning, who is still unsigned, called the New Orleans offer "insulting."
Although the training camps are opening this month, 13 of the 26 first-round picks were unsigned as of June 15. (By that date last year, five out of 26 hadn't signed, as best as can be determined.) And while Congress ponders the question of pro basketball's merger, a great many prospective pro football rookies and their agents are up in arms about the effects of the pro football merger.
Tony Razzano, of Dayton, who has incorporated himself as United Pro Athletes, Inc., is perhaps the most clamorous. For the past six years Razzano was a full-time scout for San Diego and Washington. Now he is an agent who represents, among others, Anderson, White and three of their Ohio State teammates. Running Backs John Brockington and Leo Hayden and Defensive Back Jack Tatum, all first-round choices. As of last week only Brockington, who was drafted by Green Bay, had signed.
"Oh, I know what they're doing, indeed I do," says Razzano. "The teams are playing the old waiting game, giving us the Chinese torture treatment. I know it well—I did it myself—but never have they been so tough. The clubs are waiting and sitting, sitting and waiting until the kids are pushed to the brink of panic. Then, in desperation, the kids will sign. And why not? It's now a oneway street and the clubs own it. They've got it all their own way."
The one-way street has been the route ever since the merger, and without the stimulus of the AFL-NFL rivalry the prices for football talent have been dropping steadily. This year they've plummeted. Presumably, the clubs' offers reflect the state of the economy. However, there is good reason to believe that they also reflect a desire by the teams to discredit agents, to eliminate the need to a deal with a third (sometimes preposterous, often shrewd, always difficult) party. "There were only three or four agents a few years ago," grumbles Gil Brandt, vice-president in charge of personnel for the Dallas Cowboys. "Now there are 150. They get the kids in the summertime, just like in basketball, and give them money and cars and big promises. One of our draftees, not even in the top three rounds, his agent bought him a Lincoln Continental and promised him a no-cut contract. We don't even give our No. 1 choices no-cut contracts."
Razzano, who makes no promises himself, thinks the clubs are using the agent issue as an excuse for penny-pinching. "The money the teams threw around during the football war was unreal," he says. "Now the prices are ridiculous—but the other way."
To support his charge, Razzano cites the contracts given to last year's high-draft choices. One No. 1 choice, a defensive player like Anderson, got a $50,000 bonus and a five-year contract with a starting salary of $26,000 a year and annual $4,000 increases. By contrast, Anderson was offered a $20,000 bonus and a three-year contract, which starts at $17,500 and goes up by $2,500 a year. Basically, it's an $80,000 contract that ties up Anderson for four years (the option clause adding an extra year), which is close to the life-span of the average pro. The club calls it a $144,500 contract. The $64,500 difference comes from the "if" money ("lollipops," Razzano terms them), the contingency clauses that go on and on into cloud-cuckoo land. They include $2,500 if Anderson plays over 50% of each game on offense or defense and San Francisco wins its division; $2,500 more if he plays 50% on offense or defense and San Francisco wins the conference title; $2,500 more if he plays 50%; etc. and the 49ers win the Super Bowl. There are six more contingencies that add $2,000 to $5,000 a pop to Anderson's salary. They cover such eventualities as being picked Rookie of the Year ($5,000); making the official All-Rookie team ($2,000); and being selected and playing in the Pro Bowl ($5,000). The only lollipop Anderson can count on is the $5,000 he gets if he makes San Francisco's 40-man squad. This is safe money since teams are reluctant to admit making a mistake about a first-round choice so early in the season.
As for the rest, they are chancier than come bets at the crap table. For instance, in the 20 years they have been in the league, the 49ers have never won an NFL title. They did win their first division championship last year, so that reduces those odds but the odds against being chosen Rookie of the Year are 600 to 1.
Still, all the lollipops are incentives of sorts and would be valuable if they were free. They aren't. As a general rule, contracts loaded with contingencies are less lucrative in basic terms.
Razzano would like to discuss both the front and back of Tim Anderson's offer, but so far he officially doesn't even know of the contract's existence, since until recently the 49ers refused to recognize that Razzano existed.
As far as Razzano is concerned, San Francisco may lead in intransigence, but Buffalo follows close behind. It is his perhaps fanciful opinion that NFL clubs may be colluding in their negotiating tactics. Whatever the club, the sales pitch invariably opens with a paean on the glories of the city. "It's unbelievable," says Razzano. "General Manager Harvey Johnson actually made Buffalo sound like a tropical paradise." This is followed by an expression of the club's desire to make the rookie happy. Then comes the hard-times pitch. "The 49ers told me the team was 'financially disabled,' " says Anderson. "Mr. Johnson claimed Buffalo had a bad year at the gate," says Jan White. Next comes an elucidation of company policy in which the team establishes an attitude of fair play for all rookies—past, present and future. This means the high-draft choice is going to be offered about half of what could be reasonably expected.
In the case of Jan White, Harvey Johnson flew into Columbus and met the player and his agent. "There will be no highs or lows," said Johnson, "just one figure, a fair one, and therefore there will be no need to negotiate." The 49ers told Anderson essentially the same thing, which was a refrain of the conversation Hayden had with Minnesota's Jim Finks and what Brockington heard from Green Bay and Jack Tatum from Oakland. No reason to negotiate. The fair offer in Jan White's case: $17,500 bonus and a 517,000 beginning salary with increases of $2,500 and $3,000 over the next two years. On the other hand, last year's high second-round players received $30,000 bonuses and salaries that began at $23,500. Says Johnson by way of extenuation: "Every team's financial setup is different. Some have 80,000 capacity stadiums, others have 46,400 like us."
So far Johnson has been a man of his word. He has not changed his offer. He has, however, attempted the old wedge play—that is, tried to separate the player from his agent in order to dicker or, better yet, get the player to sign. To this end Johnson has attempted to see White in private, but to no avail.
"It's bad enough to sit and listen to your body haggled over like cattle going for so much a pound," White says, "but it's even worse when you have no say in how much they're going to have to pay. Then the clubs sneak around to the back door and try to get you to sign and that's inexcusable. The whole process is disillusioning."
Tony Razzano makes a distinction between teams that are willing to negotiate and those that are not. "Representing five players picked by five different clubs, I have a pretty good cross section of what's going on," he says. "Either the teams are all tuned into the same channel or else they're conspiring to set wages.
"It seems to me Commissioner Pete Rozelle promised there would be a competitive market price when he asked Congress' permission for the merger—not the stimulus of two leagues but the natural difference of prices for talent, which would to a degree have to be met. But all we've heard is the club's policy, take it or leave it—and in some cases I haven't heard that."
As always, the principal hassle isn't over money, but over an unwillingness to even talk. This means that Oakland, Minnesota and Green Bay are tough but reasonable. Buffalo is unreasonable. San Francisco is something else.
Indeed, the 49er situation is its own kind of scene. The twists and turns of what Anderson calls "childish tactics" are hard to follow, much less understand. Anderson has asked the 49ers to negotiate with his agent. He has repeated his position to General Manager Jack White, to Coach Dick Nolan, to Scout Chuck Cherundolo, to the San Francisco press and, most recently, to Rozelle.
Yet it was nearly three months before the problem—or, rather, issue—was isolated. At that juncture, Marshall Leahy, the 49ers' lawyer, sent a letter to Razzano, which, in effect, stated: "If the boy elects to have you present at the negotiations, the 49ers cannot deny him the privilege. However, in keeping with the consistent policy of the 49ers over the years, they insist that there will be no negotiations with any agent unless the player is present." Now that seems reasonable enough, except that neither Razzano nor Anderson had ever stated that Anderson wouldn't be there.
"Tony told all of us he wanted us to be present during the negotiations," says Anderson. In fact, two of the players have chosen not to be and a third, Jan White, wished he hadn't been. "The procedure is the one dehumanizing aspect of pro football," says Brockington, who sat outside and chatted with the Green Bay public-relations man while Razzano listened to the Packers' tough sales pitch. "If I had been present, I would have ended up hating the Packers, and that would've spoiled football at Green Bay. To me it's like an insurance pitch. It's back and forth and it all sounds good and then you find out that you've been skinned."
"I find it's a shady thing," says Anderson, who doesn't object to the stipulation that he be present but to all the events and hard feelings that proceeded it, as well as the presumption that his being there was an original thought. Before the 49ers recognized Razzano, Anderson had complained, "Here I am, an athlete ignorant of the contract game and I'm not allowed to have an experienced adviser. Yet they're old pros at negotiating and they've got their lawyers, their experts. It doesn't make sense."
What makes even less sense is the sequence of events that led to Leahy's letter. Serious problems did not develop until Razzano sent Anderson out to the 49ers' rookie orientation camp at Redlands, Calif. on March 6. Although no direct contact had been established between him and the club, Razzano figured it would be a sign of his reasonableness if he sent his client to camp. He told Anderson to be cooperative but to refuse to negotiate without him.
"Everything was cool," Anderson recalls, "until Coach Nolan asked me to see Mr. Jack White, the general manager. I told him I didn't want to negotiate without my agent. He told me that White just wanted to meet me." After one conversation White slipped him a folded piece of paper on which White had written the club's terms; Anderson was told not to read it in camp but to go home, study it and talk it over with Jack White's good friend Woody Hayes, Anderson's old coach at Ohio State. No mention was made of consulting Razzano, although Anderson had repeatedly brought up his agent. White's version is different. He says, "I told him to talk it over with Razzano, and I never tried to sign him."
Razzano was enraged by what he considered San Francisco's breach of faith. He had Anderson call the club and repeat the request that the 49ers deal with Razzano. This was followed by registered letters and telephone calls by the agent and the player.
Nothing happened. In fact, there was only dead silence and a hasty end to the conversation whenever Anderson mentioned Razzano's name. Razzano couldn't even evoke this much response. He never got White on the telephone, even though they are old friends. "I like Jack White," said Razzano last week. "I like Tony Razzano," said Jack White last week.
Finally, in an attempt to break the logjam, Razzano called San Francisco President Lou Spadia. Razzano now finds it a goad to his determination to recall the conversation. In his re-creation of the call, Razzano plays both parts with considerable verve.
"Mr. Spadia, this is Tony Razzano," emotes Razzano as Razzano.
"Tony who?" says Razzano as Spadia.
Razzano: Razzano, R-A-Z-Z-A-N-O.
Spadia: Oh, Raz-zan-o. I guess that's Italian.
Razzano: Yes, Mr. Spadia. I'm the president of United Pro Athletes and I—
Spadia: You're what?
Razzano: I'm the president of United Pro Athletes and I—
Spadia: What's that?
Razzano: It's a personal service company formed to represent athletes and I represent San Francisco's No. 1 pick, Tim Anderson—
Spadia: You what?
Razzano: I represent your No. 1 draft choice, Tim Anderson.
Spadia: Oh, that's what this is all about. Well, listen Raz-zan-o, I have a general manager, Jack White, who I pay a big salary to negotiate contracts, so call Jack White. [Pause] And listen, Raz-zan-o, don't call collect.
The last word (or words, as it turned out) was yet to come. Within seconds of hanging up, Razzano picked up the receiver again to call Tim Anderson and give him a no-progress report. Apparently the connection with San Francisco had not been broken, and Razzano heard a voice, which he thought he recognized as being Jack White's, say: "You were a magnificent son-of-a-bitch."
Razzano quickly hung up and put through a call to Jack White, only to be told that Mr. White had just stepped out of the office. Razzano then sent a note to Spadia telling him what he overheard and suggesting that the nonsense stop and the negotiations begin. The reply was Leahy's letter.
Last month San Francisco sent Cherundolo, who was a coach with the Redskins when Razzano scouted for the team, to see his old compadre. At almost the same time Joe Perry, the former 49er fullback, tried to pay a call on Anderson. "It was a smooth move," Razzano says. "Dago on dago and black on black. But it didn't work." Cherundolo sat in his dago buddy's living room and asked him, "What the hell's the problem between you and the club?" Razzano grimly replied, "Ask your bosses, because I have no answers." Perry, meanwhile, missed Anderson but passed along a message: "Tell Tim to hurry up and sign. He's only hurting himself. Tell him to remember Tony Razzano won't pay his salary." Perry then called on Anderson's mother to get her to influence her son to accept the 49ers' offer. Two weeks ago John Brodie, the 49er quarterback, got into the act with a call to Anderson.
Recently, Razzano and the Ohio State 5, minus Tatum, sat around and discussed the negotiations—or lack of them. "I've never been poor," said Brockington, "but if they offered me like $18,000 I'm sure I would have grabbed it if I had gone it alone." Razzano got Brockington more than $36,000. "I would have signed if Tony hadn't been with me," said Jan White. "That Harvey Johnson was such a sincere-sounding dude that I felt sorry for him. But he shut me off when he said there are lots of people who aren't sure Jan White can make the pros. Then I realized he was my enemy." Leo Hayden had the same reaction. "I thought Jim Finks [of the Vikings] was a good dude until he got to the nitty-gritty. Then I saw he was my enemy."
"Don't say that," interrupted Razzano. "You don't understand. It's just a game, and when it's all over and the contracts are signed these men will be your friends. The trouble will all be forgotten." Forgotten? Not by Razzano's five black clients and, probably, not by many of the other 217 blacks (out of 260 draftees) taken in the first 10 rounds. The "game" is foreign to them. They regard it as a personal affront.
"So far the teams have not budged, and there's no reason they should," Razzano said last week. "I've got no place else to go. The clubs have told me right along, 'Take it or leave it,' and if they don't break soon then I'll tell my clients you've been jobbed. I'll tell them to sign if they want and pay me what they want, but I didn't help you at all—not at all. What else can I do? I ask you, where can I go?"