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The 55% Solution

This is the controversial proposal of Ed Garvey and the NFL players' union as contract talks approach

Was the end of Super Bowl XVI the start of the longest off-season in NFL history? "If the NFL Management Council takes the position of management in baseball, this could be the last game for a long while," says Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFL Players Association, otherwise known as "the union." The collective bargaining agreement between the players and the Management Council, which represents the owners, expires on July 15, and although that day is almost half a year away, there already is an air of fatalism surrounding them, a feeling that the issues, the deep distrust both sides harbor for one another and the personalities involved add up to a strike.

None of those personalities is more controversial than the 41-year-old Garvey, who has spent most of his professional life with the Players Association. People either love him or loathe him. Because he went to college and law school at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s, NFL Establishment types occasionally try to paint him as a wild-eyed radical. Garvey can be wild-eyed at times, but he is not the "alleged bomb-thrower" sportscaster Brent Musburger once introduced him as to a nationwide audience on CBS-TV's NFL Today. A man with a penchant for social and economic causes, Garvey sees himself as "a progressive in the Wisconsin tradition." His friend and mentor, Gaylord Nelson, the former U.S. Senator and Governor of Wisconsin, says, "Ed's first-rate in every way. He's an exceptionally talented and practical man of great integrity. He also has a sense of humor, and I don't trust anyone in authority who doesn't have that." In fact, some of Garvey's difficulties in dealing with his opponents seem to arise because he will veer away from the main argument occasionally to make a wisecrack. Asked recently, after an interview, if he had neglected to mention any owner in particular, Garvey said, "Dracula, Attila the Hun." Characterizations such as that may be quotable, and are quoted, but do little to lessen tensions.

Representing the owners is another feisty Irishman, John M. (Jack) Donlan, 46, who became executive director of the Management Council in 1980. The point man in negotiations, Donlan works with the council's executive committee, which is composed of Chuck Sullivan of the Patriots, Mike Brown of the Bengals, Leonard Tose of the Eagles, Hugh Culverhouse of the Buccaneers, Jim Kensil of the Jets and Dan Rooney of the Steelers—hard-liners all, except for the last. Donlan says Commissioner Pete Rozelle has nothing directly to do with the negotiations because he is "the commissioner of all football: the owners, the players, the fans." That the commissioner isn't present in person at negotiating sessions suits Garvey just fine. "Going one-on-one with Rozelle is like trying to nail custard to the wall," he says. However, Gene Upshaw, Raider guard and president of the NFLPA, indicated at a press conference in Detroit last Friday that Rozelle should be at the bargaining table.

Donlan, labor lawyer and a former member of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, worked from 1971 to 1980 for National Airlines as senior vice-president for industrial relations, and during that time he negotiated more than 40 contracts with eight unions and went through four strikes, the longest a 14-month walkout by the Machinists Union. The Machinists, who struck over a grievance, eventually won after going all the way to the Supreme Court, but Wilbur Spurlock of that union, who went head to head with Donlan, gives him the highest marks. "Jack was a tough negotiator," Spurlock says. "Basically what he was doing was upholding his boss's wishes. The [NFLJ owners couldn't have found a better man. If they want to try to break the players'——, Donlan is the tool to do it."

Garvey and Donlan have met privately only three times, the first two meetings taking place in the Machinists Building in Washington, D.C., where, by coincidence, the Players Association has its headquarters. (The third time they had lunch during the AFL-CIO convention in New York City this fall.) As Donlan recalls it, the first meeting occurred about a year and a half ago. He was in the building visiting old adversaries and decided to drop in on Garvey to "introduce myself as the new kid on the block." Donlan says that Garvey was very curt, and after 20 minutes Donlan left, thinking to himself of Garvey, "Here is a smart-ass." The second time he met Garvey, Donlan says, Garvey asked him if the Management Council was going to continue to help fund a career counseling program run by the union, and after Donlan said it wouldn't until the council received information on the program's effectiveness, Garvey turned away and began opening his mail, "kind of like I was dismissed."

Garvey says, "I absolutely disagree with his account of what happened, and even then it's terribly irrelevant." What is relevant to Garvey is that Donlan seemed to be dragging his heels about even discussing how to handle the negotiations—housekeeping items like the size and shape of the table. Although a meeting to discuss such matters is now set for Feb. 16, Donlan, a counterpuncher, would have preferred to wait until after the third week in March, when the players finish their convention in Albuquerque. "That's when they get their marching orders," he says. To Garvey, this is so much nonsense. The players' demands, he says, have been outlined (see box, page 32), and the convention will merely "fine-tune" them.

The demands fall into five major categories, the key being the one that calls for the players to derive their wages from 55% of the NFL teams' total gross revenues. Garvey contends there are several reasons why the players should share the wealth. First, the NFL clubs are "socialistic," because all teams earn approximately the same amount of money no matter how they fare on the field. All clubs, winners or losers, share equally in the TV money, all home teams keep 60% of the gate, all road teams collect 40% of the gate, "and," says Garvey, "a point most people don't know at all, all teams share playoff monies, the gate receipts and the TV revenues, equally.'' Garvey adds, "John Mecom may be the smartest owner because, though the Saints have never had a winning season, he's received, as much money from the playoffs and the Super Bowl as Pittsburgh and Dallas." As a result of this "corporate socialism," Garvey says, the owners have no economic incentive to sign free agents or pay established players more money. In fact, he asserts, owners can realize significant savings by replacing veterans with less expensive and less skilled rookies; in essence, he says, the owners almost have an incentive to lose.

Garvey also contends that a union review of all player contracts indicates that the clubs compare salaries and get together to keep them as low as possible, an assertion Donlan calls "utter nonsense." Garvey says that back in 1967 when the NFL had to compete with the AFL for players, 67.7% of the gross revenues in pro football went for player salaries, the highest percentage for any sport. Now, without competition, except that which Canadian pro football offers, the NFL expends, according to Garvey, only 26% to 30% of its gross revenues on player salaries, the lowest for any sport. (The Management Council says the figure is closer to 44%.) And even though pro football is "America's Favorite Sport," as determined most recently by a New York Times/CBS News poll, NFL players lag way behind baseball and basketball players in earnings. In 1980, the average NBA salary was $186,000, the average major league baseball salary $143,000 and the average NFL salary $78,000. The only way for NFL players to get a fair measure of their worth, concludes Garvey, is by collecting a percentage of the gross, and 55% is, in his words, "the bottom line."

How would the players divvy up the gross? All the players would be paid out of one pool, made up of 55% of every club's gross revenues. Regardless of position, every player would receive the same base salary, depending on the number of years he had been in the league. Using 1980 average salaries and gross revenue, first-year players could expect to find their salaries increased by almost 50%, from $51,087 to $75,000. Third-year players would jump from $67,868 to $105,000 and fifth-year players from $87,840 to $140,000.

Some of today's higher-paid players might wind up on the short end, although the NFLPA's proposed contract guarantees their current wages with a cost-of-living increase to follow in later years. "Some quarterbacks like it, some don't," Garvey admits, "but generally speaking, most quarterbacks will be doing better than they're doing now." And there's still more money in the pool to be added to the base salaries. Players would get incentive bonuses based on the number of times they started or their total playing time. Those chosen for the Pro Bowl would get an extra $50,000 apiece. Some of the remaining money in the 55% pool would be used to create a jumbo jackpot for players on teams that make the playoffs. Based on figures calculated for 1982, Garvey says that any player on the Super Bowl-winning 49ers would have wound up with more than $195,000 in addition to his base salary.

None of the above sums will be writ in stone until the players' convention, but, says Garvey, whatever the final figures are, a fixed percentage of the gross is the union's No. 1 demand. The 28 player reps unanimously endorsed this concept last June, and a poll of the players—conducted by the union—is said to be running more than 90% affirmative.

Last fall, the Players Association published a 64-page brochure entitled Q. Why a Percentage of Gross? A. Because We Are the Game, and members of the Management Council have been scrutinizing it as though it were Mein Kampf. Vince Lombardi Jr., the assistant executive director, says that when he reads through it, "I go through the whole gamut of emotions. I chuckle, I moan, I grind my teeth. It depends on which page I read." What especially sticks in his craw is the comment on page 42: "A strike would not 'kill the goose that laid the golden egg.' Rather, it will give you 55% of the egg and joint control of the goose." "Joint control of the goose!" exclaims Lombardi indignantly.

Donlan, who rejects Garvey's figures as unsupportable, says simply, "Their thrust is a percentage of the gross. That is totally unacceptable to the owners, without regard to what the percentage is. You really equate a percentage with control, and when you get a percentage of anything you want to change things. The owners are not going to let the union run their business."

Aside from outright rejection of a percentage of the gross, Donlan apparently will continue an old league strategy when it comes to handling Garvey and the union: make Garvey the issue. "Garvey is the union," Donlan says. In December the Management Council began putting out a monthly newsletter, The NFL and You, which is sent to all the players, or, as Donlan calls them, "our employees." In the first issue Garvey and the union were accused of lending the North American Soccer League union $325,000 without first consulting NFL players. "A lie," says Garvey. "The player reps all approved, and although we don't check with every member every time we make a move, all the members have been kept informed." When the January newsletter appeared, it resumed the attack on Garvey in an editorial concerning a letter from the NFLPA to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED on the subject of NFL team profits. Its "view was so distorted," said the editorial, "that the document should be entered in a writing contest under the category of 'Best Short Subjects—Fiction.' " Nearby was a story that began, "It was another case of somebody else doing the work and Ed Garvey taking the credit." Alan Page, the recently retired Chicago Bears defensive tackle and a staunch unionist, phoned Garvey to say, "That newsletter should be called The NFL and Ed Garvey."

If there is one thing that the NFL management has been able to do well over the years, it has been to use the press to advantage. As a result Garvey often gets clobbered in the papers. A recent example: a wire story by Norm Clarke of the AP's San Diego office in which Charger owner Gene Klein accused the union and Garvey of "attempted blackmail" for trying to suspend Quarterback Dan Fouts from the Chargers' crucial final regular-season game for nonpayment of union dues. For paragraph after paragraph, Klein dumped on Garvey, and it wasn't until the 10th paragraph that the reader learned that Garvey wasn't even involved in the case. The ruling that Fouts had to pay his dues had been made by a four-man panel composed of union representative Brig Owens, the former Redskin defensive back, Upshaw and two management representatives, Dan Rooney of the Steelers and Terry Bledsoe, assistant general manager of the Giants. Even so, the story then went on to quote Klein again as charging that Garvey was "attempting to destroy the NFL and the Chargers." Klein added, "It makes me wonder if Mr. Garvey has a reason for us to lose. Perhaps he's paying a debt to someone, or perhaps he's got something riding on a game."

If Klein had accused a fellow owner of all this—particularly the implication of gambling—Rozelle doubtless would have had Klein on the carpet at once, but there wasn't a peep out of "the commissioner of all football." Garvey himself was reluctant to reply to either Klein or the AP. "How do you respond?" he asks. "It's that kind of orchestrated attack. If I responded to a Gene Klein, the real issues would be obscured." Perhaps, but in the meantime, some sports-page readers are left with the impression that Garvey is an opportunistic lowlife who will use his union position to win a bet.

Donlan is pleased by Garvey's reaction to The NFL and You. "It's bothering him," Donlan says. And there's more on the way. Donlan and others at the Management Council are poring over back issues of the union monthly, The Audible, and the weekly newsletter, Check-Off, looking for quotes that will damn Garvey. And it's true that Ed Garvey, a "with-me-or-against-me" type who often shoots from the lip, has provided the council with some ammunition. What will reporters think of this line from the Sept. 28, 1979 Check-Off: "Rozelle's pressing job is to keep writers happy and unthirsty." How rational can Garvey be when in the same issue of Check-Off, he says, "Jim Kensil? His only regret is that capital punishment is not allowed in the NFL."

All this and more will be headed toward the press and players by the Management Council. "We think the players should get a different point of view," says Donlan. "Garvey's been blowing smoke at them, working on their macho image, asking, 'Are you going to let those Daddy Warbucks owners screw you?' He has a hell of a lot of nerve."

Donlan views all the strike talk on Garvey's part as evidence of the immaturity and insecurity of the union. In 1974, after contract negotiations with the owners collapsed, Garvey persuaded the players to strike their training camps. The players stayed out only six weeks before knuckling under and returning to camp, and although they eventually won most of their demands in court, Garvey lost credibility. How much support can Garvey count on from the players this time around? There have been occasional rumors of dissatisfaction with Garvey from the ranks, and the Management Council's decision to publish The NFL and You may indicate that the owners think Garvey's support can be undermined. But Garvey now has what amounts to a closed shop, the result of the last collective bargaining agreement, signed in 1977, and a treasury inflated by annual dues that were nearly doubled this year—from $670 per player to $1,122—and are the highest in all of sport. The players and even their wives have been thoroughly briefed on the issue of a percentage of the gross. The Players Association also commissioned a 20-minute film called The Player's Game. It stars Kris Kristofferson, who warns, "The NFL Players Association is heading for its toughest battle, and you'll need all the help you can get," and it features such players as Linebacker Stan White of the Lions, an attorney off the field, who says there's pressure on the owners because "the guy who sold strike insurance to the baseball owners is on a deserted island somewhere."

To Garvey there can be no comparison between now and '74. "Our communications are far superior than they were then," he says. "The input from players is better than before, our staff is large and experienced enough to handle essential contacts in a union so spread out, and we've worked carefully to receive our charter from the AFL-CIO and to communicate our need for assistance to the entire labor community. And the key point is, we have the right issue. All the players can see how much is involved. When we talked about free agency in 1974—and we took surveys afterward—a lot of our people thought that free agency wouldn't help them. This time they can see a percentage of the gross will help virtually every player."

And suppose that means a strike? "If it means strike, it means strike," Garvey says. "We're not going to get it unless the owners believe the players will strike. No one gives up money or power for the fun of it."


Owner strategy has been to make the much-maligned Garvey the central issue.


Jack Donlan, who represents the owners, calls the 55% demand "totally unacceptable."


Garvey (wearing tie) led the players out of training camp during the 1974 contract talks.


•Percentage of the gross


•New dental plan
•Continuation of medical insurance beyond the end of professional career
•Life insurance to be increased from $50,000 to at least $500,000 per player
•Joint control of insurance program


•Joint management-labor committee on game rules
•Joint committee to select and employ team physicians
•Minicamps limited to one per team, with players to be paid and no contact allowed
•A serious effort to get rid of artificial turf
•Fines to be limited, with the money to go to players in need, not to management
•All grievances decided within 30 days
•A joint committee, not the commissioner, to handle excessive violence on the field


•Normal vesting to be reduced from four years to three, with vesting not denied to players who are so severely injured because of football that they cannot play the required number of years
•Normal retirement benefits to begin at age 50 instead of 55; early retirement benefits to start at 40
•Retirement benefits to be doubled
•Total and permanent disability payments for non-football-related injuries to be raised from $500 to $2,000 a month, and football-related disability payments from $2,000 to $4,000 a month; widows and survivors—meaning children—to be guaranteed $2,500 per month
•A broader definition of "football-related" injuries


•The new collective bargaining agreement, not the standard player contract and the NFL Constitution and By-Laws, to govern players' relationship with management
•All cut players automatically to become free agents and not go through waivers
•A player to become a free agent every three years unless he voluntarily agrees to stay with his team
•Joint control over NFL Security, which Garvey calls "a private police force without restraints"


Politics and sports have long been obsessions of Ed Garvey. The only son in a conservative Irish Catholic household, he was raised in the small town (pop. 8,385) of Burlington, Wis., fervently believing in the Green Bay Packers and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. After serving as the "mayor" of the student body at Burlington High (where he also played football and captained the golf team), Garvey majored in political science at the University of Wisconsin. He lettered in freshman golf but gave up the sport when he was elected to the student senate as a sophomore. That same year he wrote his parents explaining that he had decided to become a Democrat. His mother wrote back, "Your father and I think you need a vacation.

After Garvey became president of the Wisconsin student body, he campaigned for the abolition of compulsory Army ROTC, arguing that a voluntary program would attract better officer candidates. Successful in his fight, he joined the ROTC to prove his point, and when he was graduated in 1961 he was commissioned as a reserve second lieutenant in the Military Police. Given his record at Madison and the fact that he was graduated nearly a decade before radicals made Wisconsin a byword for anarchy, Garvey is privately appalled at what he describes as Pete Rozelle's attempts to characterize him as a bomb-thrower. Garvey says that several years ago during a meeting, Rozelle said to him, "I was just telling Jim Kensil [then the NFL's executive director] that you're a bitter man." "Bitter?" said Garvey. "Yes," said Rozelle, "bitter that you got out of Wisconsin too early to have participated in the bombing of the chemistry building." Garvey said, "Do you realize that a student was killed in that explosion?" "Yes," answered Rozelle. Garvey said, "I guess this conversation is over," and left.

After graduating from Wisconsin, Garvey was elected president of the National Students Association and married Betty Miller. Although the NSA was then under attack by the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, the international program of the NSA was, Garvey learned, being secretly funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. Later he worked closely with the CIA in Europe when he was secretary-general of the International Student Conference, which was opposed to the Communist-dominated International Union of Students.

Back in the U.S., Garvey spent two years as an Army intelligence officer and then went to law school at Wisconsin. After graduating in 1969, he joined the Minneapolis firm of Lindquist & Vennum, which represented a number of labor unions. The firm later became general counsel to the NFLPA, and Garvey, who had been assigned to the union on almost a full-time basis, accepted the position of executive director in 1971.

Garvey also serves as an adjunct professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. where he teaches a course in professional sports and the law. His wife is president of the PTA at a school for moderately retarded children. The youngest of the Garveys' three children, Lizzy, 9, is autistic. Kathleen, 13, is co-captain of the cheerleaders at her suburban Maryland junior high, and Pamela, 19, is a sophomore at Wisconsin where, NFL headquarters take note, she has just been elected to the student senate.