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The bizarre conflict between former Buffalo Bills running back Joe Cribbs and his new USFL club, the Birmingham Stallions, seems to center around confusion on Cribbs's part as to what his five-year, $2.45 million contract with the Stallions actually means. Cribbs signed the contract last June, successfully fought off (with the Stallions' help) a suit by the Bills, who were trying to keep him, and began playing with the Stallions in Birmingham in February when the 1984 USFL season began.

But Cribbs soon asked that his contract be renegotiated. That he and the club were talking renegotiation wasn't made public for about two months. Then, according to Cribbs, the Stallions broke off discussions. After playing in a 43-11 loss to Philadelphia on Sunday, May 6 (which brought the Stallions' record to 9-2), Cribbs didn't show up for practice on the following Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday of last week the Stallions, apparently convinced that Cribbs was making good on a threat made by his agent, Louis Burrell, that he would walk out if negotiations didn't continue, filed a $20 million suit against Cribbs and Burrell for breach of contract and for "lessening and destroying" the value of the Stallions' franchise.

Birmingham club president Jerry Sklar issued a statement saying, "Three weeks after the 1984 season started, Joe Cribbs demanded we renegotiate his contract.... We told Joe that we already have a valid and enforceable contract with him.... In 1983 we signed Joe to a five-year contract for approximately $2.45 million, bringing him back to his native Alabama and making him a wealthy man at the same time. We stood behind him during his lawsuit against Buffalo.... We feel it is unfair...for Joe to make these demands and leave the team at this crucial point in the season."

Cribbs says, "I didn't quit the team. I expected to be fined for missing practice.... I was confused and upset [and] I drove to Sulligent [his hometown] to see my mother.... We've been negotiating since the second week of the season.... Both sides appeared willing to work something out."

Neither Cribbs nor Burrell would specify what they objected to in the contract Cribbs signed last June, when his agent was Jerry Argovitz, who relinquished Cribbs as a client after becoming an owner of the USFL's Houston Gamblers. But Cribbs says, "The contract is not what I thought it was when I signed it. There are serious dangers in it that I wasn't aware of."

The problem may lie in that $2 million-plus pie in the sky that Cribbs saw when he signed last June, and which shrinks a bit under close scrutiny. Although Sklar says the Stallions made Cribbs a wealthy man, that depends on what "wealthy" means. Cribbs's basic salary is $250,000 a season for the next five years, with only the first three guaranteed. He also is to earn deferred salary over those five seasons, a total of $550,000 (although only $100,000 of that is guaranteed—and payments to Cribbs don't begin until 1989). The contract also specified a signing bonus of $650,000—$200,000 was paid in 1983 and the remainder is to be spread over five years, beginning in 1986. And he is to receive a $350,000 interest-free loan, in payments spread over three years beginning in 1984.

On the other side of the ledger, Cribbs was obliged to pay Argovitz a $75,000 fee in 1983 (presumably out of the $200,000 he received from the Stallions), plus $25,000 in 1984 and 1985; and he begins paying back the loan in 1986, with a $30,000 payment that year and annual $80,000 payments each of the following four years.

Assume that Cribbs continues to play for Birmingham under his present contract. In addition to the $125,000 he got last year ($200,000, minus $75,000 to Argovitz), his cash income for 1984, 1985 and 1986 will average about $355,000 a year, a nice bundle but nothing extraordinary as athletes' salaries go these days. His guaranteed salary ends after the 1986 season. At that point the Stallions will still owe him $500,000 in bonus money and deferred guaranteed salary, but Cribbs will still owe them $320,000 on his interest-free loan. Net income to him: $180,000, spread out ($20,000 in 1987, $20,000 in 1988, $120,000 in 1989 and $20,000 in 1990).

If Cribbs is still a fine, capable player in 1987, he can go on to earn a lot more money. If he's not, about all he'll have left is piecrust.

At a Masters indoor track meet in Princeton, N.J. earlier this spring, the chairman of the TAC Masters track and field committee, Jerry Alan Donley, was pleased and gratified to hear a small boy who was standing near the pole-vault runway chant, "Make it! Make it!" each time a vaulter raced down the runway. Young, interested fans bode well for any sport, and Donley was moved to comment approvingly to the boy's father on his offspring's enthusiasm. The father replied, "Well, I wish that was what he was saying. Actually, at his first meet several years ago, he thought it was really exciting when one of the vaulters broke his pole, and what my son is really saying is, 'Break it! Break it!' "


Add to Olympic woes: the U.S. weightlifting team. The country's best lifters took part in their Olympic Trials in Las Vegas last week, and judging from the results, most shouldn't have bothered. Jeff Michels, America's top lifter, currently suspended from international competition for failing to pass a drug test at the Pan Am Games (he hopes to be reinstated before the Olympics), was recovering from an injured ankle and qualified only as an alternate in the 242-pound class. Curt White, a 181-pounder and the second-best U.S. lifter, eliminated himself with back-to-back boo-boos. Needing to jerk 391 pounds to assure himself a spot on the squad, White decided to try 407 instead. He missed all three attempts; on his second lift he did jerk the weight successfully but took his hands off the bar above the waist as it dropped, a violation of the rules. The U.S. Weightlifting Federation set weight minimums, above the international minimums, that it expected all 12 qualifiers for the team to meet. Only four did. Normally, lifters succeed in four of six attempts; of 222 lifts tried at Las Vegas only 89 were successful.

"Our men are just too lazy," said Rudy Sablo, a member of the U.S. federation's executive committee. "They won't work. Except for a few of our men, we need new blood."


In a game between the Mets and the Braves last week, Mets third baseman Hubie Brooks was called out in a close play by umpire Joe West. Manager Dave Johnson argued vehemently, but West was adamant and Johnson went muttering back to the dugout. Mets coach Bobby Valentine and pitcher Mike Torrez kept things going by walking to the end of the dugout to look at an instant replay of the incident on a Sports Channel camera. After watching it, they yelled some pertinent comments to West, who responded not by tossing them out of the game but the two cameramen. The Mets complained about West's action but National League president Charles S. (Chub) Feeney, supporting his umpire, explained that while chasing cameramen out of the game was without precedent, the rules say no TV replays are to be shown to players on the bench.

Despite Feeney's comment, there was, in fact, a precedent of sorts in West's action against civilians. More than 20 years ago (SI, July 29, 1963) National League umpire Al Barlick, generally acclaimed the best in the league at that time, called a very close play in Cincinnati against the Reds. There was a bitter argument and much booing from the crowd, but Barlick prevailed.

Next morning the umpire was having breakfast in a hotel coffee shop with sportswriter Jack Herman of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. A man came over to Barlick and said, "I was at the game, and I saw you blow that call." Barlick, furious, jerked his thumb toward the door and yelled, "Get outta here!"

"And the man went!" an admiring Herman said later. "It was the first time an umpire ever ejected a customer from a coffee shop!"


Cheyne Horan, a 23-year-old Australian surfer, was depressed last summer because he'd failed to win any event for more than a year. Then the upset victory by Australia II in the America's Cup set Horan to thinking. "I wondered," he says, "if the radical winged-keel design of the yacht could be applied to surfboards."

Through a mutual friend he got in touch with Ben Lexcen, Australia II's designer. Lexcen, who's a sailboarder, thought Horan's idea might have merit, although he also had some thoughts about improvements in the design of the surfboard itself. In any case, he went to work with Horan, and after some trial and error came up with what Horan calls a "star fin"—a sort of underwater peace sign. It resembles the Australia II's keel, but of course is much smaller.

Horan has used the new fin on both old and new boards and is very high on it. "I can direct my board more accurately," he says. "It's faster and has a better turning arc. It's also given me considerably greater confidence."

Some doubting Thomases play down the design improvement and say the psychological advantage is all that the new fin really has done for Horan, but whatever the reason, it seems to be working. He finished fifth in the Wave Wizards competition off Singer Island, Fla. in January, at Easter won at Bell's Beach, on the Indian Ocean 60 miles west of Melbourne, and has moved back into the top rank of the world's surfers. Good enough results to convince Horan and Lexcen to patent the design and move into production. The first fins (priced at about $30 each) are expected to be on the market in Australia along about the middle of the summer.



Australia II's innovative winged keel inspired Horan's miniature surfboard version.


•Fortney H. (Pete) Stark, Democratic Congressman from Oakland, on the Soviet withdrawal from the Olympics: "I don't blame them. Los Angeles probably would steal their athletes just like they stole our Raiders."