The longest strike in sports history ended last week, and the National Football League went back to work after 57 days on the beach. Who won?
The union—make that the future of the union.
Any players who figure they'll be around five years from now when a new contract will be negotiated. Based on current longevity figures, that's 31.7% of the work force.
The rest of the players—68.3%.
The owners won because they retained solid control over the game. For five more years they won't have to worry about the specter of free agency, which has sent salaries in basketball and baseball soaring. For those same five years NFL players will continue to draw the lowest average salaries in major pro sports. The owners also fought off percentage-of-the-gross and central-fund plans the players had so ardently espoused. In sum, the owners preserved their way of life for half a decade. To do it they had to sacrifice seven/ sixteenths of a season's revenues (an estimated $210 million)—although, remember, they didn't have to write any salary checks for those seven weeks, thereby saving $63 million. Was it worth it to them? Yes. While the union showed the world it could sustain a strike, the owners demonstrated they could take one. Neither lesson will be lost when the parties sit down again in 1987.
The union won because it showed strength and organization. It established itself as a unified force, something it hadn't been able to do before. The owners' first major offer, a five-year, $1.6 billion package submitted on Sept. 8, came with the threat of a strike hanging over their heads. It wasn't a final offer, it was an opener, and although a lot of union people dismissed it, it was still a big step upward from those ridiculous openers in past negotiations. The union got new concepts in the final contract (see box on page 22)—a wage scale, severance pay, the right to bargain individual contracts and to reject agents it deems unfit. "History-making" is how Cincinnati Guard Dave Lapham describes the pact, which is also worth $1.6 billion but contains far more guaranteed money for players than the owners' original offer. "Severance gives players a year to adjust to income loss. It gives you a good feeling to know that for at least one year you'll be able to make it financially."
"People don't understand the full implications of this contract," says Pittsburgh President Dan Rooney, a key figure in working out the final agreement. "It's revolutionary."
Those revolutionary concepts give the union something on which to build when it comes to the table in '87. But most of today's players will be gone. The price they paid to firm up the future was heavy. A machinist or auto worker who might spend 40 years in his trade can well understand sacrifices in one contract for down-the-line benefits, but the average NFL life-span is 4.26 years, and most players don't want to make history, they want to make money. The loss of seven paychecks amounts to 10.27% of an average career's paydays. Will the financial gains the players won from the strike, the difference between the first offer of Sept. 8 and the final package of Nov. 16, cover the losses? Probably not, if you assume that the owners would quickly have improved their early offer if they smelled a settlement.
The superstars were losers. Most of them wanted free agency, the chance to peddle themselves in an open market. It's still debatable whether the union ever could have gotten this—"We would have gone without football for two years to keep, free agency out," one owner says—but no one ever got a chance to find out. The concept was scuttled at the Players Association's convention last March. Big-name stars such as Terry Bradshaw and Dan Fouts were among the earliest critics of the NFLPA demands. Players who want to follow the route taken by Tom Cousineau, Bruce Clark and Eric Harris, all of whom went to Canada and then came back two or three years later and auctioned themselves off for a bundle, are semi-losers. CFL or USFL jumpers now have to wait four years instead of two before they can return to the NFL as free agents.
The fans lost—their favorite form of entertainment disappeared—but the networks, surprisingly, didn't. CBS, for example, says counting what it saved in payments to the NFL, its profit margin during the 57 days was the same as it would have been had the network telecast football every Sunday.
Rozelle was a loser in this strike. His image has suffered. He stayed out of the negotiations because he wanted to keep the Commissioner's office separate from the bargaining table, but the world had come to look on him as some kind of savior. He wasn't.
The image of Ed Garvey also suffered. The cocky majordomo of the Albuquerque Convention became the beleaguered commander of a little garrison at New York's Summit Hotel, desperately trying to hold out as his treasury dwindled and his strength eroded.
But Garvey's image suffered in '74, too, when he couldn't sustain his training-camp strike into the season, and in the ensuing 2½ years when the players went without a contract, and in '77 when he settled for a limited free-agency system and a dues checkoff that would get the union treasury healthy. He bounced back from those grim times.
"Ed's resilient," says Rooney. "And in his own way he's formidable."
"He wants to become a historical figure," says one Management Council member. "In '77 he took a settlement so he could prepare for the big strike in '82, and now he settled so he could get the union ready for the big push in '87. It's become a narcissistic hall of mirrors for Ed Garvey."
Most of the 28 player representatives remained fiercely loyal to Garvey. "I don't know how he did it," says Packer representative James Lofton. "He never got any sleep, yet he was like the Rock of Gibraltar."
But among the rank and file there was great criticism. "I think Ed Garvey was there for his own personal interest," said Green Bay's Leotis Harris.
Adds NFLPA Vice-President Jeff Van Note of the Falcons, "Our organization is going to have to undergo a lot of changes."
Management's strategy during the strike was to sit tight and wait for the union to crack. The owners didn't make their first serious contract offer until nearly two months after the old pact had expired on July 15. "We waited much too long," says Rooney, who represented the Management Council's liberal wing. "By September we should have been deep into negotiations."
The owners addressed themselves to a wage scale only after NLRB general counsel William A. Lubbers announced on Oct. 21 that he would issue an unfair labor practices complaint. But even then the figures they came up with affected only 6% of the players, according to the NFLPA. They put a complete package on the table early in November—and waited. The first crack came two weeks ago when New Orleans players, followed by those in Houston and Denver, voted to accept the package in principle. The next one came the weekend before the tentative settlement when Garvey heard that the five-man NLRB in Washington would go against Lubbers' recommendation to issue an injunction that would have forced immediate bargaining by the owners on a wage scale. "Frankly, that shocked us," a management spokesman says. It also gave the owners the upper hand. They weren't in desperate need of funds. Their season-ticket money for 1982 already had been collected, with very little of it as yet refunded. The NFLPA treasury was in bad shape. "Our union is just about broke," says San Francisco player rep Keith Fahnhorst. "We wouldn't have had the finances to go at the owners again in 1983 if we had stayed out this whole season."
Garvey knew that time was running out. He was able to get some last-minute improvements, such as increasing the starting point of the wage scale to $50,000 by 1985 and qualifying the second-and third-year players (who are 25% of the union's membership) for severance pay, but only by sacrificing some earlier gains, notably guaranteed incentives for certain performance levels. At an afternoon meeting on Nov. 16 at New York's St. Regis Hotel with Rooney and intermediary Paul Martha, a former Steeler who's now the San Francisco 49ers' general counsel, and other management reps, Garvey and union president Gene Upshaw agreed to put management's proposal before the NFLPA's seven-man executive committee.
The seven-block walk from the St. Regis to union headquarters at the Summit must have been a long one for Garvey. "Ed didn't look beaten when he showed up," says Kansas City's Tom Condon, a member of the seven-man executive committee, "but he looked resigned. He gave us the proposition, and we took an informal poll. Some guys were very strongly in favor of staying out." The dangers of a holdout, however, were obvious to everyone. "Canceling the season would have meant that a lot of older players would have lost their severance pay forever," Condon says. "I mean the guys who wouldn't be back next year. Could we have done that to them?"
The executive committee decided to leave the decision up to the player reps, who were waiting five floors above in rooms 1725-27. With two absent and one abstaining, they voted 19-6 to present the contract to the membership. When they were polled on whether they would recommend acceptance, however, only three said yes.
Clearly, there is still an undercurrent of rebellion. The Lions refused to practice the next day, and the Patriots talked of boycotting last Sunday's game at Cleveland. Garvey had to make an emergency trip to Foxboro to dissuade them. "I noted how the players kept their distance from me when I went out to practice today," Cleveland owner Art Modell said on Thursday, the second day back. "None of them even acknowledged I was there. I guess many of them are angry and bitter." As play resumed on Sunday, it was touch and go whether some of the more militant teams—New England, Washington and Chicago, among others—would vote to accept the contract. There was even some talk that the players would play last weekend's third game of the season, grabbing a paycheck while at the same time establishing a year's pension credit, and then go out on strike again. There's also the possibility that the players will decide to continue the season without a contract, as they did from 1974 to 1976, but that would sacrifice the immediate financial gains they made with this contract.
What pro football was left with was a parody of a season—nine games, topped by 16 (instead of the usual 10) of the 28 teams going at each other for three playoff weeks, with the two survivors playing the fourth week in Super Bowl XVII at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Jan. 30. "A Mickey Mouse playoff setup and an asterisk season," Lions owner William Clay Ford calls it.
And the fans, what did they think of it all? A lot of them stayed home Sunday. In 13 stadiums the average attendance was down 8,390 from last year and the no-shows—people who bought tickets but didn't use them—totaled 115,586. In all, the 13 games played to 77% capacity, off 12% from 1981. Before anyone predicts the demise of the NFL, however, remember that baseball fans showed the same sort of disaffection after the major leagues' 50-day 1981 strike but turned out to watch games this season in record numbers.
Pro football will go on.
THE VALUE OF WALKING OUT
The following are some significant contract gains made by the players as a result of the strike:
SEVERANCE—The owners originally offered $10,000 per player for every year played from 1983 to 1986. The new contract credits all past years and has a ceiling of $140,000 for a player with 12 or more years' experience. A player who retires after four years would receive $60,000 in severance.
WAGE SCALE—In September the owners called it "minimum salary" and set up a five-year scale during which minimums would go from $30,000 to $35,000 for rookies and from $50,000 to $55,000 for players with five or more years' service. The final contract establishes a scale that will range in '82 from $30,000 for rookies to $200,000 for 18-year men. In '85 the range will be $50,000 to $200,000.
POSTSEASON PAY—September offer was $5,000 per player for wild card teams up to $30,000 for Super Bowl winners. New scale: $6,000 to $36,000.
PLAYING RULES—In the owners' offer players had no say about rules. Now players can send disputed rule changes involving safety to arbitration.
RIGHT TO BARGAIN INDIVIDUAL CONTRACTS—Agents wouldn't have been restricted under owners' proposal. Now, the union can disqualify any agent for a veteran player and, with the player's approval, negotiate for the player itself.
BONUS—The owners offered bonuses of $10,000 for rookies, $20,000 for second-year men, etc., to a maximum of $60,000 for players of at least six years' service. Current proposal starts at $10,000 for rookies but jumps to $60,000 maximum for players in their fourth year. The increase affects 288 fourth-and fifth-year players, 18% of the league.