Signs of the times: Two teams meet at midfield to shake hands, and the crowd boos. Pete Rozelle, whose theme has always been "Keep the legislators out of pro football," now runs to Congress to get help to control Raider owner Al Davis. Coke doesn't come in a red and white can any more; it's in an attaché case. And a new league arrives on the scene swearing everything will be kosher and aboveboard—and then it raids NFL coaching staffs.
Outlined against a pile of legal briefs, the Four Horsemen rode into the 1982 NFL season. Labor unrest, drugs, personnel raids and Congress. As we went to press, the big questions were: Will there be a strike this season, or a lockout? Will testing for drugs be part of the game plan? Which way will Congress swing? And how about the ambitious United States Football League? How about it, Pete Rozelle? How about the USFL?
"In the old days," the commissioner says, "that would be Number One on the priority list. Now it's Number Four."
All four are connected. The threatened strike is the glue that binds. The USFL, or the prospect of a special Players Association All-Star League, probably killed any idea of a lockout by NFL owners. If the players were locked out, they could sign with anyone they wanted to. The owners might take them to court, but they'd be hard pressed to win. How could they hold someone to a contract if they had "thrown" him out of work? But the presence of the USFL also provides the owners with a reason to fight NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey's percentage-of-the-gross and fixed-salary-scale concepts.
"If the NFL agrees to fixed-salary structures for five years," says Howard Slusher, the agent for San Diego Quarterback Dan Fouts and others, "then it gives real life to the new league. If I know what Dan Fouts is going to be worth for the next five years, and there's a new league offering significantly higher pay, where do you think I'd advise him to go? The USFL guys say they're not going to bid for high-priced talent, but if a George Allen or a John Ralston has a shot at some superstars of the NFL, do you think anyone's going to stop him? Plus there's the publicity value. Look what happened when Allen signed an NFL third-round draft choice [Tim Wrightman, tight end from UCLA]. He got more ink than Moses did when he came down with the Ten Commandments."
Proposed drug testing by urinalysis has created a rallying cry for the Players Association: invasion of privacy. In the NFLPA's attempt to mobilize a significant strike force, no symbol or gesture (e.g., the pregame handshakes) or slogan is overlooked.
Rozelle's attempt to get Congress to pass a law granting pro sports leagues an antitrust exemption, which would reverse the court decision allowing the Oakland Raiders to move to L.A., is directly linked to the contract negotiations, says Garvey. It has become another rallying point. Rozelle says that there is no connection and that Garvey's attempt to tie the two together is another propaganda move.
The league has hired a high-powered lobbying team to help push a bill through Congress—"hopefully before the end of the year," Rozelle says. The first part of the bill would exempt the NFL from antitrust restrictions if the owners banded together to prevent a franchise shift. The second would uphold the league's right to revenue sharing, particularly TV revenue. The thrust of this part is to keep maverick owners like Al Davis from making their own TV deals in the future.
Garvey sees a more insidious threat. He feels that the long-range effect of a law defining the NFL as a joint venture would be to kill off any union attempt to bring an antitrust suit. It would take the teeth out of the victory the NFLPA won in court in 1975 when the Rozelle Rule, which concerned free-agent compensation, was judged an antitrust violation, thereby opening the door for free agency. Garvey feels that passage of the bill the NFL owners want would cripple collective bargaining in the future and permit the owners virtually to dictate conditions to the players.
"Why is Rozelle worried about having to be protected in sharing TV revenues?" asks Ben Zelenko, special counsel to the NFLPA. "The league is already protected under the Sports Broadcasting Act, passed in 1961. No, what Ed's afraid of is that the current legislation is too broad. There are too many loopholes. It's the fear of the unknown."
"If this bill passes," says Garvey, "there will definitely be a strike."
"The language of the bill specifically says that it doesn't apply to collective bargaining," Rozelle says, "or to any labor-management matter. You don't have to look very far to see the Ed Garvey-Gene Upshaw-AI Davis connection. Garvey's policy is dictated by Upshaw [the president of the Players Association and a 15-year Raider veteran]. Upshaw has been on Al's payroll for 15 years. He has testified for Al in court, and he testified for Garvey before Congress."
Rozelle's primary concern right now is getting the bill through Congress. Certainly Garvey's side gets some sympathy there, especially from legislators who rely on the labor vote. The money Rozelle is spending on lobbying is only a drop in the bucket compared to what the league stands to lose to the Raiders and the L.A. Coliseum if the bill doesn't go through. On Sept. 20 the same jurors who on May 7 ruled against the NFL in the Raiders' suit will decide on damages. Joseph Alioto, the Raiders' lawyer, estimates they could be as high as $100 million—$25 million to the Raiders, $6 million to $7 million to the Coliseum, all of that trebled.
Sources say that the NFL Management Council, the league's collective-bargaining arm, is nervous that Rozelle's emphasis on the bill might prompt him to make concessions to Garvey to get him to call off the dogs in Washington, thus weakening the Council's negotiating position.
At this writing, the negotiations were going nowhere. On June 7 the Players Association presented its demands for 55% of the NFL teams' gross revenues. The Management Council rejected them a day later. Early in July management presented a counterproposal—basically cost of living increases and a very slight relaxing of the compensation rule. Garvey didn't even wait a day before he rejected it.
"He said it was unacceptable," says Jack Donlan, the Management Council's chief negotiator. "I said, 'You just thumbed through it. You didn't read it.' He said, 'I've taken an Evelyn Wood speed-reading course.' "
Management wants to see how far the union is prepared to go, whether the players are strong enough to strike after three regular-season games, as they've threatened, or if they'll crumble. After being out 41 days in 1974, they came back to camp—and then worked without a contract for almost three years. Donlan has tried to head off anything that would make a decision to strike easy for the union. He killed the fines for the handshake demonstrations. Why make people mad? He's dead set against a lockout, which would, in effect, "be doing Ed Garvey's work for him." It's wait and see, show us what you've got.
It's tough to read the players' minds. A strike is easy to call in training camp. No one likes two-a-days. But after three weeks of the season, when their football metabolism is in full swing, and maybe their team is 2-1 and challenging, well, that's another matter.
Comments like those of the Giants' player representative, Beasley Reece, don't help the union's cause. "A substantial salary increase would be seen as a good offer," he said a few weeks ago. "I'm sure the players would accept it, even if it's not 55 percent. We'd just like a raise. Money is money—the formula isn't the important thing. On the first legitimate offer the players would be telling their reps, 'Take it and let's play football.' "
If an owner made a statement like that, he'd be fined $100,000 under the Management Council's anti-pop-off rule. Many players must have winced when they read it.
Management's flat rejection of the percentage-of-the-gross concept, with its fixed-salary scale and incentives, is a switch from its position in '75. The owners wanted a salary scale then, and the union rejected the idea. Free agency was the issue at that time, but now Garvey says it won't work. The bidding wars for Tom Cousineau and Renaldo Nehemiah would seem to indicate otherwise. Garvey says free agency is O.K. for superstars but would mean little to the men in the trenches.
Donlan says a percentage of the gross is unacceptable because it would give the players a say in running the business. This is the party line. Extent of control—or lack of it—is negotiable. The real fear is that the players would cut themselves into a share of any huge TV payoff that lies ahead if the league goes into some form of pay TV (after the current $2 billion TV contract expires following the 1986 season). There have been hints that the league might run its own network on a subscription basis, and the anticipated payoff would make $2 billion look like peanuts. Who wants the players cutting into that? Not the owners.
"Pay TV is still very far down the road," Rozelle says. "As far as our own network goes, there are legal ramifications. You'd be both the product itself and the marketing agent. I don't know if that would be allowed."
Prospects for a quick labor settlement seem bleak. The owners fear free agency. The players won the right to it in court, but they virtually bargained it away in their last contract. If free agency is the players' fallback position now, then it would make sense for management to bite the bullet and go for some variation of the percentage of the gross concept—with a dollar ceiling on what the players could get from future TV deals. Right now the owners aren't faced with that decision. There is no strike. If they read weakness, if the players go out and then their strike collapses, then there will be a pay raise, an increase in benefits, some easing of the compensation rule, and that's all—or possibly no contract at all, as was the case in 1974.
The drug problem is tricky. The Armed Forces have it, so does the entertainment world. "The integrity of the game" has been a league byword for years, but that image suffers if fans suspect that players would do anything to support an expensive drug habit. The league's handling of ugly matters in the past was to hope they would go away. Its investigative forces have been a joke. The inquiry into Ken Stabler's alleged gambling connections dragged on for nearly a year before he was cleared by Rozelle in August. During this past year former Viking Defensive End Carl Eller repeatedly warned the NFL that it had a big cocaine problem, but no one in the league office paid enough attention. Today there's a lot of publicity about it, and the league finally has proposed a solution.
"Right now if a player's got a drug problem and he wants help, he can go to his club and enroll in a detoxification program," Rozelle says. "The club would pay for the program, no matter how expensive it is. We've introduced a combination league drug program, with the help of Leo Zeferetti, a Congressman from Brooklyn and chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. Clubs will either retain a chemical abuse expert in their city or work with a rehab facility. A player would be encouraged to volunteer for evaluation and possible treatment. No disciplinary action would be taken, and the club would get a roster exemption while he's undergoing treatment.
"A physical examination and urinalysis would be left up to the individual clubs, but could only be done for a reason. It would be on a spot basis, but there'd have to be a cause. Say a player's performance falls off dramatically; he'll be checked. He might have hepatitis or a blood condition. A player who's clean would welcome it."
Finally, the USFL. The two-year ABC and ESPN TV packages have guaranteed each of the USFL's 12 clubs an estimated $1.5 million a year. This is something no new league has ever had before, a guaranteed payoff before it opened the store. But the money is still minimal, and the league is subject to the whims of TV. Right now the USFL's March-through-July schedule looks a lot better than the usual run of garbage sports, but if the ratings aren't impressive, the TV people might go back to lacrosse and refrigerator racing.
"That's why we have to shoot for a live gate right away," says USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons, who came from ESPN. "We need credibility."
Simmons admits that George Allen's freehanded ways in signing Wrightman and ex-Colt Quarterback Greg Landry without owning their USFL negotiating rights were an embarrassment. Allen, he says, will be "encouraged to conform." There will also be an overall budget for total salaries—not spelled out in so many words, more in the nature of a gentleman's agreement. He estimates that USFL salaries will average about $40,000.
USFL teams supposedly will stock up on unproved young talent, with no raiding of NFL rosters. But right now the Steelers are steaming because the new league has snatched away some personnel who had existing contracts.
"We lost our assistant head coach, George Perles, two weeks before training camp opened," says Steeler V.P. Art Rooney Jr., "and our line coach, Rollie Dotsch, during camp. Both were under contract. How would you feel if you were getting ready for a season? My father called Perles and told him he would never be welcome around the Steelers again. At 81, he doesn't need that kind of aggravation."
The situation has created bitterness among old friends. At the Steelers' first exhibition game, Steve Furness, a defensive tackle for them on all four Super Bowl teams and now a defensive line coach for Philadelphia of the USFL, asked for a seat in the press box. The Steelers turned him down.
"You gave one to the Canadian Football League people," Furness said.
"Yeah," said a Steeler official, "but they play by the rules. They honor contracts. They don't steal our coaches."
Bitter times ahead. Labor troubles, drugs, raids and Congress. The Four Horsemen ride again.