Considering their intransigent attitudes, it was never much of a surprise the last three years when Ed Garvey, the executive director of the NFL Players' Association, and Sargent Karch, the chief labor negotiator for the NFL owners, walked out of a conference room in New York or Washington or San Diego and announced that the players and owners once again had failed to reach agreement on the terms for a contract to replace the pact that had expired in 1974. "If you absolutely do not trust them, and they do not trust you, then you can't get a settlement," Garvey said after one fruitless negotiation session.
And so it was in this spirit of mistrust that Garvey and Karch met in Room 1507 of Washington's Madison Hotel shortly before Christmas for yet another session. Taking note of the garish red velvet that covered one of the walls, Karch's wife Susan promptly called it the "Wayne Hays Suite."
Unbeknown to Garvey, Karch had arrived in Washington with a new game plan. "Before our meeting I started to think about priorities," Karch recalls. "Most of the owners had said that the NFL's draft of college players was critical; that if they went through one season without a draft, they might never get one again. The meetings among owners to discuss the draft always began the same way. Commissioner [Pete] Rozelle would say, 'Of course, if we could agree with the union on something, that would be preferable. But assuming we can't, what do we do?'
"Everybody assumed we could not agree because of Garvey, so I started to think in terms of what was important to Garvey and the union. In negotiations we had always said, 'Let's talk about the draft and compensation for teams losing players who exercise their options and see if we can agree on those issues, because without them it's not worth talking about anything else.'
March 7, 1977
"Well, we reasoned that the Rozelle Rule for compensation was not all that important to Garvey: getting rid of the Rozelle Rule would help the wealthy players at the expense of the poor ones. The way we began to view it, the Rozelle Rule and the draft were simply the ways Garvey was getting his leverage, and he was getting more leverage with every court decision.
"Then we concluded that three things were important to Garvey: 1) the strength of his union. 2) outside arbitration of player grievances rather than arbitration by the commissioner, and 3) cash settlements of the lawsuits striking down the Rozelle Rule and the draft as illegal. I decided to make a last try with Garvey and bring up these three issues."
When their meeting in the Wayne Hays Suite had concluded, Garvey said, "Sarge, I hope you're not kidding me."
"When Ed said that, it told me a lot," says Karch. "It was then that I knew a settlement was possible."
"For the first time," Garvey says, "there was a discussion of things we wanted to talk about instead of just what they wanted to talk about. The whole struggle was to get them to bargain. They'd never bargained before."
"As soon as we started to make sense with Garvey," Karch says, "Garvey started making sense with us."
Last Friday, after six more meetings, the owners' and the players' board of representatives officially brought peace to pro football by approving a new five-year contract. By effectively using a "demand for freedom" as the players' primary pawn in the negotiations, Garvey won what he most wanted: the strength in numbers and dollars that the players' association needs to effectively represent its members. By bargaining with Garvey, Karch and the owners won the right to a modified version of what they like to call the "structure" of the sport; there will be a modified draft (with 12 rounds instead of 17) and a modified Rozelle Rule (without Rozelle's participation).
For the 36-year-old Garvey, the agreement ended seven years of frustration, controversy and attacks on his integrity, and now there is speculation that he will resign his position with the players' association to take a job with the government. "I went to work with the players in 1970 because I saw how badly they had been beaten by the owners in their last negotiations," he says. "Now I'm placing a lot of eggs in one particular basket: specifically the ability of the union to gain strength and sit across the table as equals the next time around."
Garvey originally intended to work for the players for only two years, "But I did not appreciate how strong the owners were," he says. "All each NFL owner has to do is put up $10,000 and the league has $280,000 to fight us in court. I was very naive."
That naiveté was exposed in 1974 when Garvey convinced the players to strike their training camps after negotiations for a new union contract had broken down. "We put up our dukes in 1974, and they did it to us with one punch," he says. "But on the way to the canvas we decided to come back, to return to work without a contract. The greatest achievement of the union was that it stayed alive."
Not that it was easy. Membership dropped from 1,257 players in 1973 to fewer than 400 by the end of the 1974 season. Before the strike the NFLPA had cash reserves of $722,530. Two years later the association was $236,464 in the red. Naturally, management would rarely miss an opportunity to nail Garvey. Billy Sullivan, the owner of the New England Patriots, branded him as "nothing more than a campus radical." Leonard Tose, the Philadelphia owner, said, "He doesn't help the league at all, and he doesn't serve his membership."
Some players obviously agreed with Tose's assessment. In August of 1975 the Minnesota Vikings demanded Garvey's resignation, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have not paid dues for two years.
Player dissatisfaction with Garvey reached its peak last summer. He had rushed home from a European vacation for some backroom politicking, which resulted in the tabling of the so-called Anderson-Rooney contract agreement reached by Miami Safety Dick Anderson, the president of the players' association, and Steeler President Dan Rooney, the chairman of the NFL's negotiating subcommittee. Many NFL players were aware that under the Anderson-Rooney pact the NFL would resume the multimillion-dollar annual contributions to the players' pension program that had been suspended in 1974 and publicly blasted Garvey's interference. However, as an NFL club official admitted last week, "If we had gotten the Anderson-Rooney settlement approved, it would eventually have been harmful because it was weighted too heavily in favor of the owners."
Indeed, the Anderson-Rooney agreement contained none of the three major concessions that Garvey won from the NFL in the agreement approved last week. The owners have now agreed to an agency shop in which all players who have entered the league since 1974 must either join the union or pay an amount equal to the annual dues ($350). In either case the money is deducted from their paychecks. The union also received from the NFL a cash settlement of $16 million for three lawsuits. Finally, the owners agreed to outside arbitration of player grievances.
For their part, the owners got their modified draft, their modified Rozelle Rule—compensation will involve predetermined draft choices, not active players—and a pledge of no strikes or class-action lawsuits. Basically, it was a three-for-three swap.
"Settling was just a matter of trust," Karch says. "Garvey's a smart guy, a brilliant guy. I have nothing but admiration for him."