As negotiations in the pro football strike broke off Saturday, the NFL Players Association clung to its demand for a seniority-based "wage scale." Wage scales are common enough in American industry but usually reflect fairly closely what workers are actually paid. The one proposed by the players' union is different. Because of the star system in pro sports and because of bidding for players by both the Canadian Football League and the new U.S. Football League, the NFL would almost inevitably have to pay players who are low in seniority but high in talent far more than scale, even if you include performance bonuses the NFLPA was also calling for. The union further proposed that the wage scale, in effect, be continually adjusted to ensure that total compensation reaches $1.6 billion over four years and that this money be distributed not by the clubs directly but through a fund administered independently of the owners. Its choice of language notwithstanding, the NFLPA wasn't asking for a conventional wage-scale at all but, rather, for something akin to union control of player payrolls.
But management was taking similar linguistic liberties in pushing a settlement that supposedly would preserve the right of "individual salary negotiations." In fact, meaningful salary negotiations could take place only if the NFL were to shed its severe restrictions on free agency. The NFLPA, to be sure, has chosen not to fight for unfettered free agency, concluding that because teams generally play before full houses and share TV revenues equally, they lack the economic incentive to win that would induce them to bid for free agents.
But big salaries to Renaldo Nehemiah, Tom Cousineau and others who, because of unusual circumstances, were able to sidestep the NFL's free-agency restrictions, suggest that the owners do have incentives to win. Indeed, a recent study by Frank A. Scott Jr., an assistant professor of economics at the University of Kentucky, found that the difference to NFL clubs between winning and losing is, on the average, $170,000 a game. Scott explains that victory on the field is of financial benefit to those clubs that don't always fill their stadiums and, although fans may not like to hear it, makes it easier for teams that sell out to raise ticket prices. The economics of the NFL "argue for free agency," says Scott. He adds that, economics aside, most owners take pride in winning, which "makes free-agent players that much more valuable."
October 10, 1982
Another indication that free agency would greatly increase salaries is the fact that the owners don't want it any more than the NFLPA does. If pushed to the wall on the issue, they would have difficulty defending this opposition. In similarly—and unsuccessfully—resisting free agency, baseball owners could at least argue that, because of the cost of developing players in their farm systems, they had a legitimate stake in keeping them from jumping to other teams. NFL owners have no such excuses; they get their players straight from the colleges, a farm system that costs them nothing. The suspicion lingers that if, early in the negotiations, the NFL had offered to implement true free agency, the players, whose support for NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey was less than solid, would have forced Garvey to accept the offer. Instead, the owners stuck to their untenable position on free agency, overreacted to the players' gesture of pregame solidarity handshakes and turned the stage over to Management Council Executive Director Jack Donlan, a man even more given than Garvey to inflammatory rhetoric. The effect of all this was to unify the NFLPA's rank-and-file as never before.
As the labor-management impasse continued, legal skirmishing was taking place over NFLPA plans to stage televised games between divisional all-star teams starting this Sunday. Those games would have more fan appeal were the teams identified with cities—e.g., the Pittsburgh Pickets vs. the New York Unionists—but an NFLPA spokesman admitted that the thought never occurred to union leaders. The NFLPA was sufficiently provident, however, to arrange injury insurance from Lloyd's of London for players who compete in all-star games. For its part, management said it would consider reopening training camps and trying to suit up enough NFL and pickup players to stage what, in a probable further debasement of the language, would be billed as NFL games.
AS OTHERS SEE US
The Times of London ran a page one story on the NFL strike last week under the headline WHY GROWN AMERICANS ARE WATCHING GIRLS' SOCCER. The paper reported that in addition to attending girls' soccer games, male NFL fans "were reduced to watching old movies, or going to bed early with their wives." It concluded that it was "fair to say" that American men fell into three broad categories: "Those who watch football on Sunday afternoons...those who watch football on television Monday evenings, and...those who do both."
Steve Williams, a senior starting offensive guard on the University of Oklahoma football team, didn't spend his vacation last summer on a construction job or a trip to Yosemite. Taking advantage of an NCAA rule that allows an athlete to retain college eligibility in one sport while playing professionally in another, Williams starred on the pro wrestling circuit in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. Billed as Dr. Death, he wowed grunt-and-groan fans—and played up his Sooner affiliation—with a series of football-inspired moves called the Oklahoma Stampede.
In the morality play that is pro wrestling, Williams was depicted as a "good guy." But what of his forbidding nickname? As it happens, he came by the moniker more or less honestly. Williams had worked in a cemetery while attending high school in Lakewood, Colo., and when he participated in a wrestling match wearing a hockey mask to protect a broken nose, one of his coaches was moved to say, "Here comes Dr. Death." The name stuck.
At Oklahoma, besides playing for Barry Switzer's Sooners, the 6'2", 280-pound Williams won the Big Eight heavyweight wrestling championship three straight years before using up his eligibility in that sport last winter. That freed him to venture onto the pro wrestling circuit. Counting tag-team competition, he lost twice in 57 matches, both times, he says, as the result of villainy; in Baton Rouge, for example, a rival produced a metal object while the referee wasn't looking and used it to clobber the Sooner star. Despite such occupational hazards, Williams says that after pursuing an NFL career he hopes to return to pro wrestling, which he defends as "a good thing for people who've had a hard day. They can take out their frustrations—kick the benches and knock over the chairs—and then go home to the wife and kids and have a sensible dinner."
The Oklahoma Stampede? Well, Williams would rise out of a three-point football stance, bowl over his foe as if he were an opposing lineman, lift him over his head and run across the ring with him before flinging him to the mat and pouncing on him for the pin.
Now all Dr. Death has to do is perform the same trick against Nebraska on Nov. 26.
In the past two years USC has been 1) barred from bowl games and the conference championship by the Pac-10 for academic abuses, 2) tainted by the school's own acknowledgment that it skirted normal admissions standards to get academically marginal athletes into school and 3) put on NCAA probation because of a ticket-scalping scheme that produced payments to football players. But some Trojan rooters appear to be undaunted. According to the Los Angeles Times, a number of them showed up for USC's home-opener, a 28-7 win over Indiana, wearing buttons inscribed with combative, even defiant messages. One read TROJANS DON'T EAT QUICHE, and another said, WIN ONE FOR THE GOUX, a reference to Marv Goux, the assistant football coach who conducted the illicit ticket-scalping operation. Less provocatively, another button read E.T. IS A TROJAN. Our favorite, however, was the one that bore this admonition: MAKE USC NO. 1—STUDY HARDER.
WHEN YOU HEAR THE TONE, HANG UP
As the National League West race went down to the wire, San Francisco Giant Utility Man Dave Bergman found himself besieged, like a lot of other players, by requests for tickets. Hence the recorded message he left on his telephone answering machine: "Hello, this is Dave Bergman. No!"
TRACKING THE WOLVERINES
It was recently reported in this space that Michigan Football Coach Bo Schembechler, expressing concern that the new U.S. Football League's scheduled midwinter draft would jeopardize the education of his players, had threatened to bar that league's scouts from attending his team's practices (SCORECARD, Aug. 23). We noted, however, that NFL scouts had always been welcome in Ann Arbor, even though the NFL thinks nothing of whisking college seniors to minicamps during the academic year and even though "one recent study showed that more than 40% of Michigan alums playing in the NFL hadn't graduated."
Subsequently, Schembechler charged that SI had erred and claimed that the nongraduation rate of Wolverines in the NFL was less than 15%. Then The Michigan Daily got into the act by reporting that "university records show that both Schembechler and Sports Illustrated are wrong." Those records, the paper reported, indicated that "of the 26 former Wolverines presently in the NFL, 8 (31%) haven't earned degrees." The paper said that SI's figures were "dated."
The study cited by SI was based on graduation information contained in The Football Register (which doesn't include rookies in its listings). The Register's data indicated, as double-checked by SI, that in 1980 there were 21 former Wolverines on NFL training-camp rosters, nine of whom, or 43%, hadn't graduated from college. The comparable stats in '81 were nine of 22, or 41%. Before relying on those totals, we asked the Michigan athletic department for its own graduation rates of ex-Wolverine NFLers but were told that neither Schembechler nor anybody else in the department had worked up such figures.
The Register's information was obviously "dated" in that it expressly covered 1980 and 1981, not 1982. Indeed, at the time SI raised the subject in mid-August, the '82 season hadn't begun and team rosters weren't set. The discrepancy between the Register-derived figures and The Michigan Daily's figures is partly explained by the latter's inclusion of two players who received degrees after the Register had put together its material—and after their classes graduated. It's admirable that those players returned to campus to complete their education. At the same time, the fact that so many NFL-bound players don't graduate with their classes underscores our original point that prepping for the NFL can interfere with the completion of one's college requirements, just as prepping for the USFL figures to do.
The important fact that emerges from all this, however, is that Schembechler had no idea how many of his top—i.e., NFL-caliber—players had graduated. In further confirmation of this failing, he has now ordered an in-house study of graduation rates of his players in order, he says, to refute SI. That Schembechler, the Wolverine coach for 14 years, hasn't kept track of such information all along raises the question of just how concerned about his athletes' education he really is.
A postscript on the distinction that Bo seemed to be drawing between the NFL and USFL: Lest the upstart USFL get too big a jump in signing talent because of its Jan. 4 college draft, the NFL Management Council has proposed in its negotiations with the NFLPA that the league be given the option of moving its draft, which was held this year on April 27 and 28, to early February. That is smack in the middle of the academic year.
WHEN SPECIAL BECOMES ROUTINE
Bob Hope hosted an NBC special Sunday night previewing the network's new fall TV shows. That event wasn't to be confused with Hope's special in November paying homage to the Pink Panther movies, his annual Christmas special, his special in February on his film career and a spring special commemorating his 80th birthday. So what's Hope doing in January? Labor relations permitting, he's hosting a special saluting America's biggest sports event. That's Super Bowl XVII, Special IV if you're counting.
The NFL strike is having an adverse effect on endangered species. No, we're not referring to Las Vegas oddsmakers, who, variety estimates, are losing $15 million a week in action on NFL games but can probably weather the crisis. We're referring to the beneficiaries of a promotion involving San Diego Charger Placekicker Rolf Benirschke called Kicks For Critters. Benirschke, whose father is the San Diego Zoological Society's director of research, has promised to donate $50 for each field goal he makes to a fund set up by the society "to aid in the research and preservation of endangered species." Many other San Diegans, 1,350 of them this year alone, have also pledged to donate money to the fund for each Benirschke field goal.
The Kicks For Critters fund began two years ago and has already raised $236,000. It has been so successful that it has spawned an imitator: Just before the strike, Charger Quarterback Dan Fouts agreed to contribute $100 for each of his touchdown passes and $500 for each of his touchdown runs to a Passes For Porpoises program benefiting San Diego's Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, which studies various aspects of marine life. Outsiders were to be enrolled in this program, too.
Just two more arguments for a speedy settlement of the strike.
THEY SAID IT
•Bob Starr, California Angel TV announcer, explaining why he'd misidentified a pitcher who was warming up in the bullpen: "I was looking through my eyes rather than the TV monitor."
•Richie Ashburn, Phillies broadcaster, as the TV camera showed a Mets equipment man in the dugout mending a glove belonging to Dave Kingman, a notoriously poor fielder: "They should've called a welder."
•David Frischmann, 11-year-old third baseman on the Dannemora (N.Y.) Red Sox Pee Wee team, explaining why a ground ball went through his legs: "My hands got tongue-tied."