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Original Issue

The battle is joined

A brash young lawyer named Ed Garvey leads the players' revolt

It is Saturday, March 16. The bickering between National Football League players and owners stops being propaganda and settles down into negotiation. At a long, oak conference table in the Washington office of the NFL Players Association, the players present to the owners a list of demands that they hope to have included in the new conditions-of-employment contract between themselves, as labor, and the owners, as management. Areas of agreement are slight. Areas of disagreement—the option clause, the Rozelle rule, pension-fund contributions, artificial turf, minimum salaries—are many and profound. Looming over the discussion is the possibility of a player strike if a mutually satisfactory contract is not reached.

The issues would perplex a King Solomon, and Edward R. Garvey, the young (33), sometimes flippant, frequently sarcastic lawyer who serves as executive director of the players' union, says, "I suspect that we are going to be so far apart on so many issues that the negotiations are going to be like playing in the Super Bowl without a ball." It is more than likely that owners and players both will come away from the conference table with the distinct feeling that they have gone one-on-one with Larry Csonka.

And it is just as likely that Garvey will emerge as the dominant figure, either the hero or the villain, depending on where you stand—or possibly the biggest bore. As a speaker he rates right down there with George McGovern and Nelson Rockefeller. (Asked how one of his speeches had gone, Garvey replied, "It was a typical performance. Everyone fell asleep.") But if his manner of speaking is dull, his words are not, and his abrasive comments on player-owner relationships have brought him national attention, which sometimes startles him.

"I had always hoped to end up in Washington," he says, "but I never anticipated it would be this way." At the University of Wisconsin he was a political activist, an intellectual, and his most violent sporting act was to drive a golf ball 225 yards. His competitive juices have always flowed faster in a political arena. The acid test came at the end of his first year at Wisconsin, during which he played on the freshman golf team and began poking into campus affairs. The golf coach told him he would have to choose between golf and politics. Garvey promptly put his clubs in a closet.

Which is not to say he was always a total loss on the playing field. In Burlington, Wis. (pop. 7,500), where his family owned a drugstore, he captained the high school golf team and, until he injured a knee, was a 140-pound halfback, quarterback, offensive guard and linebacker. He also kicked extra points, though the team made few demands for this specialty. It scored only six touchdowns his last year of play.

"I can't remember my percentage," Garvey says in a nasal drone that seems to come from a buzz-saw in his sinuses, "but the coach said kicking extra points was the only thing I did halfway well."

From a high school graduating class of 58, he moved in 1957 to the 3,187-member freshman class at Wisconsin and in time was elected president of the student body. After graduation in 1961 he became president of the National Student Association, with an annual salary of $3,000 and an office in Philadelphia, and a year later was in Paris as the NSA's overseas representative. He spent two years as a lieutenant in Army intelligence, and a year in The Netherlands as secretary general of the International Student Conference.

In 1966, back in the states, he studied law at Wisconsin and after graduation joined the Minneapolis firm of Lindquist and Vennum, which later became general counsel to the NFL Players Association. Garvey was assigned to the association on almost full-time basis during contract negotiations.

"I was an avid Green Bay fan," he says, "and I knew as much about football as any avid Green Bay fan. Namely, that winning was nice, losing was death, Pete Rozelle was a genius and Vince Lombardi was God."

John Mackey, the old Baltimore Colt tight end who was then president of the NFLPA, worked closely with Garvey and saw him as the ideal choice to become executive director of the players' group. Garvey was startled by the suggestion, but in May 1971 he took the job, although apparently not with total commitment at first. When he moved to Washington to set up the NFLPA office, he cautiously rented his house in Minnesota, rather than sell it outright. And back home the news was taken calmly. In its ranking of the top 10 local news stories of the year, The Burlington Standard Press put "Local Boy Makes Good" fourth, one slot behind "Aerobatic Contest And Airshow Held In Burlington" and just ahead of "Storage Bin Collapses At Co-op."

Garvey soon grew enthusiastic about his new position. "I had to admit that the job opened up a whole world of intriguing legal possibilities," he says. "In law school I had a professor, Robert Skilton, who said, 'I'm amazed how some people have to search and search for constitutional-law issues. I can find hundreds of them every day in the sports pages.' "

Garvey found himself the spokesman for the largest union in professional sport, with 1,220 dues-paying members. His job, as he saw it, was to introduce modern labor-management negotiating procedures to a business that for half a century had prided itself on being one big happy family. But he soon began to feel that he had been hired to joust with windmills.

"NFL owners are an independent, diverse, often irascible lot who find it as hard to agree among themselves as with us," he says. "It is almost impossible to get a binding decision out of them."

One of the problems, Garvey says, is to convince the owners that even though the men he represents play a game for a living, they are also adults who should not be bound by archaic employer-employee relationships. And also that they deserve a larger share of revenues. His efforts to convey this message have created considerable stir. NFL owners and executives tend to crackle with rage after a Garvey press conference.

"He's a publicity seeker trying to create reasons for his existence," Tex Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, once said.

"It appears to me he pops off too much, not only for the best interests of the Players Association, but for all of professional football," says Lou Spadia, president of the San Francisco 49ers.

Garvey supporters have been equally emphatic.

"He's wise beyond his years. He's going to be a congressman or a senator one of these days," says Nate Feinsinger, professor emeritus at Wisconsin Law.

"We call him Clark Kent," says John Wilbur, the Washington Redskin guard who is treasurer of the NFLPA. "Look at that face, those glasses, that conservative suit. But when he gets on an issue it's as if he just came out of a phone booth in his Superman outfit."

Every so often even management has had a good word for him.

"He's doing a good job for the players," Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers has admitted. "He's a very able young man."

To charges that the players, already well paid, are being greedy, Garvey says, "Dammit, getting a fair share of the pie certainly has nothing to do with greed." He claims that every club in the NFL showed a pre-tax profit last year and that the average per team was slightly more than $2 million. Gross revenues, he says, grew from $102 million in 1969 to $178 million in 1973, but the players' share dropped from 37% to 25%. The NFL Management Council retorts that such figures are grossly inaccurate.

"What few people realize," Garvey says, "is that the average pro football career—the prime earning period—lasts less than five years. Even in that short span players incur crippling and permanent injuries, even death." An example of injury is provided by the current president of the NFLPA, Bill Curry, whose leg was badly broken last fall. To deepen the irony, Curry was injured on artifical turf, which the association generally deplores.

Garvey claims the most puzzling problem for him to deal with is the role of Commissioner Pete Rozelle. "Who is Pete Rozelle?" he asks. "Is he the Neutral Guardian of the Sport, as the public thinks, and as the owners would be pleased to have us think? Or is he, as the players think, a man with quasi-governmental powers, who is the primary spokesman for the owners in their effort to preserve the present system?"

Garvey insists he is not out to destroy Rozelle or the owners. "I will be happy," he says, "if the owners and Rozelle finally come to the conclusion that they are conducting a fully mature American business, such as the automobile industry, or computers, or publishing or what have you; that they can't treat players like children, or defeat the Players Association or discredit its leadership."

Garvey claims there is a relentless public and private name-calling campaign by the club owners. "They criticize me because I've never played pro football," he says. "Which is pretty ridiculous," says John Mackey, now retired as a player and as NFLPA president. "How much football did Pete Rozelle or Tex Schramm ever play?"

Garvey says, "The league clipping service sent out an article on me that appeared in something called The Hollywood Sun-Tattler. It was wildly distorted, an interview that had me insulting everyone in pro football: owners, general managers, coaches, players. Even some of the players reps, who should have known better, were upset with me.

"The owners tell player reps, 'You are letting this man manipulate you.' " Alan Page of the Vikings says, "After our request for a survey of artificial turf received publicity, Jim Finks [the Viking general manager] called me in and said, 'Is this really the way you fellows feel? You should speak for yourselves. Don't let Ed Garvey do the talking.' "

"My loyalty to the American way of life is questioned," says Garvey, with mock indignation. "Three or four people implied I might be a Communist."

Garvey is already banned from all NFL press boxes and on game days, from all locker rooms. And there has been a persistent turnover among player representatives, the men Garvey must deal with. They are cut, waived, traded, sold—which means new player representatives who require orientation.

Despite these fringe complaints, the basic issue in dispute remains the standard professional contract. In theory, a man can "play out his option" and become a free agent who can offer his services to any other club. In practice, a team that signs such a free agent must observe the Rozelle rule and recompense the team the player formerly belonged to. This brings the exchange back to the level of trades or sales between teams and effectively restricts the freedom of movement of a player whose contract has technically expired.

Garvey calls abolition of the option clause and the Rozelle rule "freedom issues." The NFL Management Council says their elimination would threaten the basic structure of the sport.

Other demands pale in importance. If the negotiations deteriorate into the paralysis of strike, as they did in 1971 during the last contract dealings, the option clause and its application almost certainly will be the reason.

Bill Curry says, "An end to the option clause and the Rozelle rule are what we feel most strongly about. There is no doubt that we are going to the wall on this issue."

Thus it may be a long hot spring and summer for Edward R. Garvey, who says, almost gleefully, "It could be pretty wild. I'm looking forward to it."

He certainly seems to have the support of the players. "We have come to accept Ed Garvey on performance," says Curry. "He has turned our organization into a modern, efficient, functioning unit, and we know he is relentlessly dedicated to our cause.

"About the only thing we haven't been able to accept about him," Curry adds, deadpan, "is that monotonous voice of his. If he can just clear that up, we might keep him around for years."