Traditionally, the annual Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio is the big splashy official sendoff for the National Football League's exhibition season, a day when retired tackles and glad-handing oldtimers get together to celebrate the sport's storied past and marvel at its wondrous future. But last week tradition was thrown for a loss in Canton. The present—taut, volatile and decidedly unconducive to swapping old locker-room tales—intruded harshly.
Although the schedule called for a game between the Buffalo Bills and the St. Louis Cardinals, the real main event was the confrontation between the NFL Management Council and the NFL Players Association. On strike for the past month in a bitter contract dispute, more than 40 members of the Players Association went to Canton to set up picket lines and prevent the two teams—comprised mainly of rookies, free agents and whoever else had been rounded up off the streets—from competing.
Perhaps panicked by the fact that the picketing players were joined by more than 100 of their brethren from the United Auto Workers, management devised one of the most elaborate logistical plans since the evacuation of Dunkirk. To confuse the enemy, the owners' generals spread false rumors about the teams' travel plans and where they would be billeted. No contingency was overlooked. The Cardinals, fearing their uniforms might be stolen in an attempt to sabotage the game, sent an empty equipment truck to the airport to see if anyone would try to hijack it. No one did.
As a safeguard against an entire team being kidnapped, two buses were dispatched to the Cleveland Browns' training camp, and the players there were alerted to be ready to fill in as a whole spare team. Then, just three hours before game time, by secret prearrangement. the Bills and the Cardinals arrived simultaneously at the Akron-Canton Airport, just after Vice-President Gerald Ford and his Secret Service force landed in Air Force Two. Under heavy security—a helicopter flew overhead to spot possible roadblocks—the two clubs were whisked into the stadium through a back exit, guarded by mounted policemen.
August 4, 1974
In the surprisingly spirited game that followed, the St. Louis Nobodies defeated the Buffalo Unknowns 21-13—but the biggest winner of the afternoon was the crafty old Management Council. More than paranoia, the owners' fail-safe system for beating the picket line was indicative of the intensity of their desire to show the striking players that they can put on games that people will pay to see; attendance at the Hall of Fame game was 17,286, only about 2,400 fewer than the previous year.
For their part, the striking players remain confident that despite the relative success of the Hall of Fame no-name game, they will win out in the long run. While organizing the pickets. Players Association President Bill Curry observed, "Most of those guys playing out there today know they are never going to play in the NFL. If they can get a picture of themselves in an NFL uniform to hang over their bar, well, that's enough."
Many disenchanted fans have already had too much, and for a growing number, the showdown in Canton is only the latest in a series of unseemly hassles in which the result if not the issues seemed clear: everybody loses. Negotiators in both camps, citing their unstinting devotion to The Integrity of The Game, have long and loudly been pledging to work for a quick and just settlement to the dispute. But as of last week, with a full schedule of exhibition games beginning and the regular season just a few kick-offs away, the gap between the players' demands and the owners' concessions was still at the magnitude of Evel Knievel's Snake River Canyon. And after four months of bargaining, the negotiators have not only filed charges of unfair labor practices against one another but seem as recalcitrant as ever.
After the latest impasse, Ed Garvey, the cocky young director of the players' union, accused Theodore Kheel, an owners' counsel, of undermining the negotiations. "We were making some progress over the weekend," Garvey said. "We backed off on some of our demands, and they were coming up on some of theirs. But the more progress we made the more uptight Kheel got, so he called off the negotiations. He is more a part of the problem than the solution."
Answered Kheel, "To say that the Players Association backed off on some of their demands, and that as a result we are making progress, is like saying a $10 cut in the price of a Cadillac is some progress toward curbing inflation."
The sniping, the rhetoric and the posturing are aimed more at gaining public support than at clarifying the issues. The verbiage expended so far has been enough to blur all 63 of the players' demands, including the so-called freedom issues, which among other things call for the elimination of the reserve list, the option clause and the waiver system and the easing of curfews and other disciplinary rules. Yet for all the overblown cries of "anarchy" from the owners and "slavery" from the players, the essence of the dispute is a single unnegotiable issue.
The sticking point is the so-called Rozelle Rule, which is complicated by the restrictive covenants in the players' contract as explicitly outlined in a lawsuit filed in 1972 on behalf of John Mackey, who was then the Players Association president. Stripped of rhetoric, politics and hyperbole, the NFL strike comes down to this knotty issue.
The Rozelle Rule holds that if a pro plays out his option and joins another NFL club, his former team must be compensated for his defection. If the two teams are unable to agree on the compensation, the commissioner—Pete Rozelle—may unilaterally decide what players or draft choices will go in payment to the disaffected team.
"The basic issue," says Curry, "is the right of a player to move freely from one team to another when his contract has expired. We think he should have that right, just as everyone else has." The players contend that they have been restricted in their mobility ever since 1968, when Rozelle decreed that the New Orleans Saints had to give up their No. 1 draft choice for two consecutive years as compensation for signing Dave Parks, an end who had departed the San Francisco 49ers for the Saints. "It cost New Orleans so dearly," says one player representative, "that thereafter no club dared sign a player who had played out his option. We were locked in." Actually, since then 20 players have played out their options and gone to other teams, and only twice has Rozelle had to intervene.
Rozelle's stock reply is, "If NFL players are given total freedom to negotiate their services, the league would be dominated by a few rich teams and would eventually lose both fan interest and revenue." Though Curry argues that the restraints of the marketplace would work for football as they do for other businesses, other NFL union supporters admit that if the players are given the total freedom they request, some teams might fold because they couldn't compete financially. "Let those teams go out of business if they can't run a profitable enterprise," says Garvey, ever the hardliner. "That's what happens in American industry."
With the emergence of the acquisitive World Football League as a new and lucrative market, the players' argument about restricted mobility is considerably defused. But for the moment they have a greater problem to cope with. In filing their charges of unfair labor practices, the Management Council maintained that the players cannot bargain faithfully over the Rozelle Rule because of the John Mackey case.
Mackey sued to abolish the Rozelle Rule and other alleged inequities, and since the resolution of that suit is still pending, the owners contend that the players must opt for all or nothing on the Rozelle Rule issue—which conflicts with all the tenets of collective bargaining. If not, if the players agree to compromises, they weaken their position in the lawsuit because the owners can use this against them.
Providing the owners' position here is sound, the players simply cannot budge (short of giving up the Mackey suit) on this critical issue, and there is, therefore, little hope for an immediate end to the current stalemate.
Within this same general area of "freedom" issues is another head-on dispute which the owners refer to as "double jeopardy." It involves the fact that in the past the Players Association has negotiated only the minimums for salaries, but now is seeking the same authority for everything from per diem to travel allowances to Super Bowl money. So, in effect, the union is asking for two shots at the owners—first, the owners would have to concede moneys in the collective bargaining process, then they would have to start again and negotiate each of these items with each individual player.
Regrettably, the focus of the negotiations has too often strayed from the issues to become a contest of personalities, most notably Ed Garvey's. Management Council Executive Director John Thompson says that Garvey's overbearing ways have served to solidify the traditionally divided owners. "They've never been more unified," says Thompson. "That's one thing Garvey has accomplished." Garvey's manner has also alienated some of his own troops. Mike Curtis, the Baltimore" Colt linebacker who is the most outspoken pro-management NFL regular, says, "Ed Garvey is a left-wing opportunist who is trying to make a name for himself at the players' expense. They're talking about freedom issues because it's a catchy phrase. You can't be any freer than we are."
The oldtime players have also taken after the players. At Canton, former Detroit Lion star Leon Hart, who is the president of the NFL Alumni Association, and a group of his alums picketed the NFLPA pickets. "We feel the players are being led astray," says Hart, "misguided into an indefensible position from which there eventually can be no return. In my opinion Ed Garvey is a weasel."
Garvey suffers his critics wearily. The contempt of the owners, he says, is just part of their "suffocating paternalism. They can't come to grips with the idea that the players are the ones who are challenging them, and I'm just a conduit. They have to believe that I'm responsible. It's another example of how insensitive they are to what the players are thinking."
The players are all too painfully aware of what the fans are thinking. Surveys taken around the country show overwhelming public support—80% and more in some cities—for the owners. Just as in the 1970 strike, the owners' PR has been far superior to the players'. The owners' most winning move was to offer refunds for preseason games featuring the rookie legions.
In blue-collar Baltimore, the placards held by a group of 30 irate fans who were picketing the players reflected the prevailing sentiment, NO MORE FREEDOM FOR LITTLE PRIMA DONNA ATHLETES/AT 30 G'S OR MORE MAKE ME A SLAVE, TOO/YOUR FREEDOM WILL RIP OFF THE FAN. Says Doug Strouse, president of the newly formed United Sports Fans, "People are totally fed up with the whole situation. We fans should be the ones negotiating with the owners. We pay the freight. It's our pockets that are picked when the players get a raise because ticket prices go up then." Strouse says he formed his club because "management has their representation, the players have theirs and we the fans, the guys who pay the bills, don't have anything to say about anything. Well, we're going to change that now."
Despite the ill feeling toward the players there is some question that the fans will continue to support the owners to the hilt. The number of ticket returns and this weekend's attendance figures should provide an indication. This is the real beginning of the exhibition season. It is, however, still too early for the TV prophets to predict what immediate impact the strike will have on the ratings. The NFL, which received a munificent $44.3 million from the three networks last year, is obviously scanning its Nielsens closely. If the strike were to cut appreciably into the ratings, the networks would grant rebates to the sponsors, and the league would lower its fees.
Meanwhile, out there in affiliate land, most if not all TV stations are sticking with the telecasts of the rookie exhibition games. Tom Kenney of KFMB-TV in San Diego echoes the sentiments of most program directors: "If I don't carry the games Sundays, I end up with old movies. Besides, who knows? The rookies might be exciting."
If all was temporarily secure with the tube, there were still periodic rumblings out on the picket lines. Though a renegade team like the Cincinnati Bengals had more than 20 strikebreaking veterans in training camp last week, most of the players were respecting the pickets. At last count, only about 200 of the 1,200 players who belong to the association had crossed the lines.
Aside from the smattering who did not support the strike in principle, most of the defectors were marginal players who needed every lick of training to keep their jobs. A few teams—notably Denver—have also seemed to circumvent the spirit of the strike by holding full-scale practice sessions away from camp.
The picket lines, which started out with an air of frivolity, have grown more somber as the dog days of July have shimmered by. Distressingly, players even report that on many teams devotion to the strike cause is divided racially, with a disproportionate number of blacks trooping the picket lines while the whites have tended to be the strikebreakers. Except for one rumored flash incident, the racial antagonism has so far been confined to muttering, but it is natural to speculate on how this most sensitive rift may widen on many teams if the season is played.
One owners' spokesman accuses Garvey of inspiring the racial difficulties, saying that the attorney makes his "emotional appeal to the militant blacks." The very use of the "freedom" clarion call (and Mackey bandied about cries of "slavery" when he was the association president) obviously appeals to the young blacks who form the heart of Garvey's most loyal constituency.
More trouble the strikers do not need. As the owners well know, the closer the opening of the season gets the stronger will be the pressure on the players. For the moment, the players are losing little but the drudgery of training camp. In effect they are striking with impunity, which may be one reason why public opinion is so solidly against them.
On the other hand, as Curry sees it, "What the owners are really doing is trying to substitute pick-up football for true collective bargaining." Dolphin Owner Joe Robbie virulently disagrees: "This is no longer a strike in the ordinary sense. It is now a mission by the players to search and destroy."
And so the crossfire goes. In a week of seemingly endless rhetoric, perhaps the one single thought that all combatants might agree with was uttered by owners' negotiator Kheel. "Let's face it," he said, "the fans are primarily interested in having this damn thing over with, not in the arbitrability of the issues."