A strike forces the issue - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com
Publish date:

A strike forces the issue

After the owners promised new proposals, NFL players ended a chaotic walkout and kicked off the season. But the truce may be temporary

Revolution was upon the land. Bands of renegade warriors greedily clamored for a Meaningful Proposal. Sir Garvey, the infamous Knight Errant of the Bargaining Table, desperately sought to rally the rabble behind a beguiling dwarf called Bashful. But Lord Rozelle, heartless enforcer of the dread Option Compensation Ride, and his money-mad vassals, crying "Let them eat Astroturf!" from the security of their tax shelters, paid no heed. And then the peasants, feeling scorned after years of loyal support, sounded a lone clarion call amid the din, "Kick off or buzz off!"

And that's the way it was 200 years ago today.

So might the dark ages of the NFL be recounted in the year 2175. But since it is being played out in the volatile here and now, the spectacle seems more farce than morality play.

Shock theater is what the Patriots had in mind when they declined to play the Jets in the final game of the exhibition season. After the six-week strike by the NFL Players Association in 1974 and after more than 19 months without a contract or any sign of progress in negotiations between the Association and the owners' Management Council, everyone concerned was understandably frustrated. Indeed, a resolve born of distress seemed the only rationale for the Patriots' walkout and the sorry events that followed.

"We're trying to force both parties into a settlement," said Randy Vataha, the Pats' player representative. "We are standing up now to be counted. We want to find out how many teams are behind us."

But when the Patriots peeked over their shoulders last week there were only four teams, the Jets, Redskins, Giants and Lions, rallying to the strike call. Nine other teams apparently voted not to strike, though it was impossible to be sure since there was enough hedging and pussyfooting going on to shame a politician. With the Chiefs saying decisive things like, "The status quo will be maintained until further notice," you could not tell the scabs without a scorecard. "Frankly, we're losing control," said Ed Garvey, director of the NFLPA. "Essentially we have 26 locals all acting independently."

The disparity of reactions was an indication of bad communications more than it was a demonstration of unwillingness to make a "show of good faith." In many instances the team meetings were devoted mainly to trying to figure out what the players were voting for and why. In the circumstances, one persuasive figure like Vataha could swing the sentiments of an entire team or, as in the case of the Vikings, the ferocity of the discussion could bust a team apart. Three Minnesota players stomped out of their meetings in disgust, while teammate Carl Eller did not even bother to attend.

"I'm not saying the NFL is an act of God," Eller said, reflecting a weary attitude of inevitability that is more widespread than anyone will admit. "All that I'm saying is this is September, the players are ready to go, the season ticket sales are in the bank and they got fresh paint on the stadiums. Do you really think they're not going to play football this fall?"

Not if one listened to the team owners. Despite the two-week truce that was won last Thursday, there is no ignoring the Giants' Wellington Mara, chairman of the Management Council, who warned at one point, "We may not play this season at all." And the Vikings' Max Winter said flatly, "There will never be a real settlement as long as Ed Garvey heads the players association."

Garvey views such uncompromising remarks as part of a concerted effort by management to discredit him and bust the union. Whether that is true or not, many of the players as well as the owners regrettably have let the negotiations deteriorate from a discussion of issues to fulmination over personalities. That was made abundantly clear when the Bills announced that they "cannot support the strike of any NFL team while Ed Garvey exists as director of the NFL Players' Association."

The main stumbling block in the protracted negotiations is the controversial so-called Rozelle Rule. The owners contend that it should be a bargaining issue; but since the courts have cast doubt on the rule's legality, Garvey says it should not be subject to negotiation.

For months the two sides have failed to progress beyond this "threshold issue." Despite the conciliatory words of Federal Mediator W. J. Usery, who played a tireless role in forging last week's truce, it still will take a mighty shove to open the door. Management gave the first nudge on Monday when it offered a series of proposals, including a new twist on the Rozelle Rule.

In the past, when a pro played out his option and signed with a new club, his former team could bargain for—or Rozelle could summarily assign—any of the players on the other team as compensation. Under the new proposal, only those players with fewer than four years service, or about half the NFL players, would be available for exchange. Similar modifications had been discussed before, but Monday was the first time they formally had been put in writing. That alone is a positive sign. And there are indications that, if the owners are willing to liberalize the Rozelle Rule significantly, then the players will relax their position and allow it to become a bargaining issue.

As negotiators worked toward the Oct. 2 deadline when the players will announce their vote on the latest proposal, the pros seemed to be following a new unwritten rule: plunge ahead with or without the Rozelle Rule, with or without Garvey's approval.

That is partly because many people in football have come to believe that the NFL's internal squabbles are angering the fans. "Neither management nor the players are all right or all wrong," says Detroit Coach Rick Forzano. "But it's all wrong for football." Perhaps the whole thing will make sense in 2175.


GARVEY: "This dispute could be settled in 24 hours if both sides bargained in good faith."


USERY: Players should "recognize football's problems as they make their decisions."


MARA: After his Giants voted to take part in the strike: "We may not play this season at all."