NFL football was a studio sport on Sunday, pseudo-professionals playing in near-empty stadiums. Scab ball was a sad show, "an ugly, ugly thing," said L.A. Raider tight end Todd Christensen. But it was also something else. It was shock therapy, a chilling message from the owners to the striking players: We will give you something so utterly distasteful—games played without you—that your strike will crumble. Go ahead and laugh, but this will bring you back to work.
The message didn't sink in right away. On Sunday afternoon there was a festive air outside some stadiums. At Giants Stadium, for instance, 50 or so Giants and Jets picketed the Jets-Dallas game, tailgated and swapped one-liners with the fans and sympathy strikers from other unions. "Hey Kurt," a fan said to the Jets' player rep, Kurt Sohn, "did you hear that the Patriots' Tony Collins fumbled two times in his first three carries?"
"I guess being a scab doesn't agree with him," said Sohn of Collins, one of the six New England regulars to cross the picket line and play Sunday.
Then the striking players went home and thought things over. They're playing, we're not. They're getting paid, we're not. If the striking New York players got back to their houses before the Cowboys-Jets game was over and if they tuned in to it on TV, they saw Brent Musburger give the up-to-the-minute scores, same as usual, and John Madden do his chalkboard diagrams and tell everyone, "Hey, there's some real stuff going on out there." Where was the heehaw, the palm of the hand to the forehead? Where was someone saying, "This isn't real football, fans"?
October 11, 1987
And the little voice got louder. Do we really want free agency? Is it that big a deal? There was no free-agency fever at the Players Association convention in March. Free agency was just one of eight key issues. What if we took it off the table? The pension's important too, isn't it? And what about better severance and improved working conditions?
By Sunday night all the players had heard the rumors: Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the Players Association, will back off of free agency, and we'll return to work and negotiate the other issues. One of them will be having the owners not count the scab games. Management will come off its no-no-no stance and do some real bargaining. Jesse Jackson will mediate those talks, and he'll make sure everything will be kosher. What's so bad about that? Best of all, we'll be back to work—probably even by next week.
In fact, the Raiders were minutes away from going back in as a team last week, after defensive end Howie Long and noseguard Bill Pickel broke ranks and showed up for practice on Friday, only to change their minds and rejoin their striking teammates later in the day. Long and Pickel reported a few minutes before noon, California time, which was the deadline for striking players who wanted to be eligible for Sunday's game. The rest of the squad was ready to follow, but there wasn't enough time to get everyone together before the deadline, and the movement fizzled. Privately, however, Raider players let it be known that if free agency wasn't removed as a demand, they would return to work this week en masse.
As Upshaw, the executive committee and the 28 player reps gathered in Chicago for a Monday night meeting, there was speculation that the players would go back on the job without a contract and try to win free agency through the courts. "That simply won't happen," said Doug Allen, the Players Association's assistant executive director. "You hear a lot of rumors, and most of them have been planted by management. One after another they've been proved false. The meeting Monday night is to bring the player reps up to date on what's happened and to determine where we go from here." Where that might be—back to work or still on strike—was unknown early Tuesday morning when SI went to press, with the players in their fifth hour behind closed doors in Chicago.
Before the meeting Allen had sought to put the best face on how the scab games affected the union's position. ' "I know that what happened in the games directly refutes what [Cowboys president] Tex Schramm said, that the fans will be intrigued by this brand of football and will support it," Allen said. "What did those games draw—an average of 10,000?" In fact, the average attendance for Sunday's 13 games was 16,987, with a high of 38,494 in Denver and a low of 4,074 in Philadelphia.
Well, what was scab ball like? There were some moments of high hilarity. After the first play of the second half of the Detroit-Tampa Bay game in the Silver-dome, the following announcement was made in the press box: "An incomplete pass for No. 89, Eric Streater.... Please add No. 89, Eric Streater, to your roster." Streater later caught a TD pass for the Bucs in their 31-27 victory.
In the Cowboys' 38-24 win over the Jets, Dallas scored 17 points as the result of three of New York's five turnovers and another seven after deflecting a punt. New York quarterback David Norrie was sacked 11 times, 1 short of the NFL record. When the Cowboys loaded up in the middle and blitzed, the Jets scratched their heads.
Some stars looked lost in scab ball competition. The young Dallas offensive linemen did a number on Mark Gastineau. Sal Cesario, a Jet reject who wound up playing in Dallas, at least for last weekend, rode him five yards past the action on the Cowboys' second TD play, a run that covered 27 yards. Dallas's regular quarterback. Danny White, who had crossed the line, didn't get into the game because of a sore shoulder and because coach Tom Landry was reluctant to mix real Cowboys and replacement Cowboys on offense. Besides. White wasn't needed. His stand-in, Kevin Sweeney, threw passes that hung in the air like fly balls, and the Dallas receivers camped under them for long gainers or interference penalties. "Powerful arm," said Madden.
"We were outmanned today," said Jet president Jim Kensil.
"At least they played, at least they scored," said Detroit coach Darryl Rogers of his pickup team after it was beaten by Tampa Bay. "I'm just disappointed that we lost the dumb game."
Two Cleveland players took pictures of each other on the field before their 20-10 victory over New England. A crowd of 10,708 rattled around the 92,516-seat L.A. Coliseum, watching the Raiders beat the Chiefs 35-17. "I just got one glimpse of the game." said Christensen, who was in the parking lot. "I jumped up once to see how many people were in the stands."
"It was almost like street ball out there," said Rams defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, after L.A. lost 37-10 to New Orleans.
"I was curious, I didn't know what to expect." said Buffalo fan Robert Goodwin, after the Bills lost 47-6 to Indianapolis. "I was looking for a little comedy, a little mystery, a little entertainment. It was like the Dolly Parton show. They both have some real boobs."
Said striking Bills quarterback Jim Kelly during the game, "From what I hear, our scabs are getting beat 38-0. I love it." So did Indy's Gary Hogeboom, one of three Indy regulars who suited up. He threw for a career-high five TD passes against the 100% scab Bills.
Four Bronco starters who had crossed the picket line chose not to play in Denver's 40-10 loss to Houston. They said on Saturday that they didn't feel comfortable playing alongside people they didn't know. Denver, pro football's master of gadget plays (gotchas, the Broncos call them), watched the Oilers score their first touchdown on a quarterback keeper by Brent Pease (Brent Pease?) in which his teammates lulled the defense by remaining perfectly still. The Oilers scored another TD on a 16-yard run off a snap to tailback Andrew Jackson, a play Houston ran half a dozen times. The Oilers even threw in the wishbone to confuse the poor Broncos. "It's difficult to prepare when you don't know what to prepare for," said Denver coach Dan Reeves after the Broncos had suffered their worst defeat at home since 1968.
A joke, a parody, yes, yes, though the games did go on and the TV overnights weren't all that bad. Chalk one up for the curiosity factor. But ticket holders weren't seduced by the laugh-a-minute brand of football, and they stayed away from the stadiums. Chalk one up for good taste.