The understatement of 1974 is that the owners and players of the National Football League were at an impasse in negotiating a new contract. Last weekend, they could not even agree on what they were arguing about. The players said it was freedom and dignity. The owners called it anarchy and said the problem was dollars and cents. So the NFL Players Association called a strike and became the first group of professional athletes ever to picket their employers.
The historic picket line was formed on July 3 in San Diego where the Chargers opened their camp before any other NFL team. Picketing, of course, is a traditional weapon of oppressed labor. It conjures up scenes of suffering workers, worn by starvation, trudging in tatters against a bitter wind. Such at least should be implied for a proper picketing attitude, since picketing seeks to spotlight the plight of the pickets.
Unfortunately for the NFL players' cause, their picket line did not project this image. The NFL veterans came to the Chargers' camp in Continentals, Cadillacs, Mercedes and Winnebagos. Most were the very picture of physical fitness; the few who were not could have used a little starvation. They hoisted neatly printed signs that announced their cause but betrayed some frivolity: UP THE OLIGOPSONY, for instance. You can look it up. Their leader, NFL Players Association Executive Director Ed Garvey, led the parade in a conservative gray plaid jacket. Behind "the Pied Piper," as a man sympathetic to the owners called Garvey, the players sauntered cheerfully in T shirts, Bermuda shorts and sandals, basking in the California sunshine.
"Too bad it's not hotter," mumbled another owners' man. It became hotter. Shirts came off. Kids who came to see heroes like Alan Page, Ed Podolak, Ray May and Gene Upshaw stayed to carry signs for the wilting behemoths. The Pied Piper began to look like a lobster.
Beyond publicizing their labor dispute, the pickets hoped to convince rookies, who are not yet members of the players' union, not to enter the training camps. "The arrogance of an owner who says he's going to play the exhibition season or regular season with rookies is astounding," said Garvey. "We're either going to put on a first-rate production or we're going to put on a carnival." All of which made life miserable for the rookies. "I think leaving the camp is too much to ask of us," said San Diego rookie Jesse Freitas, the Most Valuable Player in the Coaches All-America Game. "To honor the picket line you've got to be willing not to play football. The vets say, 'No freedom, no football.' Well, I feel free enough and I want to play football."
All of the Chargers' draft choices and free agents reported to camp. On the second day, the Fourth of July, Garvey arranged for himself, NFLPA President Bill Curry and San Diego Player Representative Joe Beauchamp to address the rookies. At the appointed time, he led his entire picketing force and a young lady wearing a sash identifying her as "Miss Charger 1974" up the hill toward the Charger camp. Miss Charger 1974 could not ignore the symbolism of Independence Day. "Our forefathers wanted us to be free and we're not," she shrilled. The players' march was quickly halted—as pickets they were not legally entitled to enter the camp—but not before exposure on that night's TV newscasts had been assured. "We put on a helluva show," said the Philadelphia Eagles' Kermit Alexander. Garvey, Curry and Beauchamp were allowed inside and persuaded the rookies to walk en masse down the hill to talk to the veterans for 15 minutes.
As a result of that meeting, Linebacker Don Goode, one of San Diego's two first-round draft choices, joined the picket line the following day. Charger Owner Gene Klein immediately announced that unless Goode returned he would forfeit his bonus money. The next day Goode walked back up the hill.
Both sides viewed the San Diego experience as a victory, but in truth it hardened the differences between them. Many owners, Klein included, blamed Garvey for selling the players on a program the owners think will ruin football. They accused the players of making pawns of the rookies. The players said the owners were pressuring the rookies and making pawns of the fans. "For owners to expect fans to spring for the product they're putting together is an insult," said Curry.
The biggest insult seemed to be shaping up in Huntsville Texas, where Houston Oiler Coach Sid Gillman opened his training camp on Saturday to 103 rookies, even though the Oilers did not have a choice in last year's draft until the fourth round.
"This is fun," said Gillman. "It's all relative. After five days, if we put the same numbers on these guys as our stars wear, you wouldn't know the difference." The less analysis of that statement the better. Still, the Oilers are not going to tempt fate when it comes to attracting an audience. They'll play their first rookie scrimmage in Huntsville state prison.
The pickets seemed most worried that the army of Houston unknowns might actually join their picket line. "We're not even going to ask these rookies to come out," said Curry. "We wouldn't know what to do with them." Not that any of the rookies seemed likely to leave on his own accord. As free agent Richard Wilkins put it, "If I walk out, the Oilers will just say, 'Walk on.' "
By the end of the week attention was focusing on the training camps of the Miami Dolphins and the College All-Stars, who are scheduled to play in Chicago on July 26. If the game cannot be played—and the veterans insist that, one way or another, it will not be played without a contract settlement—the owners will feel the pressure that the strike is supposed to exert. Dolphin rookies, however, are having a hard time forgetting that seven current Miami veterans, including Player Representative Doug Swift, made the squad as rookies during the 1970 player strike. Even several veteran Dolphin players are considering reporting to camp. Tight End Jim Mandich said he was quitting the union and crossing the picket line no matter what. Then it was revealed that he was not a dues-paying member of the union in the first place. "We've written out a check to refund the dues he didn't pay," said Garvey, compounding the Alice in Wonderland confusion.
If the impasse continues, future issues of the players' publication, The Audible, may introduce a cartoon figure named Willie Walk-a-Picket. Garvey more or less created Willie himself. "It's one thing to talk about picketing," he said, "and another to do it. That was the important thing about this first week. We didn't know if Willie could or would walk. But he did."