William Taaffe reports on the NFL's new TV contract: On the idyllic island of Maui, where all dreams are supposed to come true, the NFL owners on Sunday confronted the harsh light of reality. The much publicized TV deal the owners accepted will, for the first time in league history, bring them a wee bit less from the great god of television than they received the previous year. The three-year package with the three major networks and ESPN totals $1.43 billion, which means the 28 teams will each receive $17 million per year, 3.3% less than they got last season. Hard times are ahead, insisted Cleveland owner Art Modell, who, along with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, negotiated the deal. Said Modell: "This should serve as a signal alarm to everyone involved—club owners, players, agents, all the people who participate in NFL activities—that quantum leaps of the past are really a thing of the past."
Those sound like fighting words to the NFL Players Association, which will meet next week in Los Angeles. Strike talk is moving upfield in a hurry, primarily over the issue of free agency, and NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw thinks the new TV contract "probably increases" the likelihood of a walkout. "The money the owners lose from TV, they'll try to save with the players," said Upshaw.
The feeling here is that a less lucrative contract doesn't have to spell trouble. Huge increases in TV revenue invariably breed instability in sports labor relations. The richer the owners get, the more stubborn the players get. Indeed, the '82 players' strike was a direct result of Rozelle's hitting a five-year, $2.1 billion TV jackpot. The new deal can offer owners and players an opening for long-term harmony by creating the need for compromise.
A smaller contract was inevitable largely because the three networks lost a combined $75 million on the NFL last year. ABC will pay some $120 million a year, a savings of $30 million over 1986, by dropping its non-Monday prime-time games. NBC, saddled with the smaller AFC markets, apparently will pay about $125 million a year, or some 15% less than in '86. CBS won a 6% rollback to $150 million.
The most intriguing wrinkle in the new arrangement is the ESPN package, which very nearly offset the reduced fees from the Big Three. ESPN, which beat out HBO and others for cable rights, will televise eight prime-time Sunday games in the second half of the season. What caliber of games will ESPN get? In all likelihood, Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and Buffalo will show up a powerful number of times on cable. To take, say, a Dallas-Washington or Jets-Dolphins game from the networks would dilute the value of the network packages. Still, having the NFL will immediately increase the stature of ESPN.
Now, if only the players and owners can seize the chance for labor peace.
The San Diego Sockers have come up with a catchy slogan to promote their anticipated appearance in the indoor soccer playoffs, which they have won five years in a row: The Joy of Six.
In a recent item about salary arbitration (SCORECARD, March 2), reference was made to a Chicago hotel meeting at which neither pitcher Jack Morris's representatives nor Tigers management would pick up the room-service tab for coffee. Now comes a note from Steven A. Fehr, who was in the Morris camp and offers a bit of amplification: "The waiter who brought the coffee cart wanted the signature only of a woman whose name was unknown to everyone in the room.... I told him I would be happy to sign the check but could not sign it in the name of this unknown woman. The waiter seemed somewhat flustered and left."
In the absence of the mystery woman, the story, alas, ends there.
REQUIEM FOR A PIT
Lasell Gymnasium on the campus of Williams College in western Massachusetts is older than the game of basketball itself. It was built in 1886, five years before Dr. James Naismith tacked two peach baskets to the walls of a gym down the road in Springfield. The Ephmen played their first game in Lasell in 1900. They played their final one there on March 7, when they closed out their season with a 92-82 win over Babson.
That victory left Williams with a record of 530-204 in Lasell. The Ephs owe much of their considerable success to the old arena itself, which was a notorious pit. Until 1928, when Lasell was renovated, players had to negotiate two rows of columns on the court; the columns held up the roof. The home team learned how to set some mighty mean picks with the pillars.
Lasell has always been too small for basketball. The court is six inches shorter and six narrower than a standard-size court. The gym has room for only three rows of bleachers along the sidelines and five rows behind each basket. And the front rows are practically on the court. Referees have been tripped by fans who disagreed with their calls, and opponents have had hairs plucked from their legs while waiting to inbound the ball. "I'm sure all those anonymous donations to the new gym were from opposing coaches," says Williams coach Harry Sheehy. "We will miss it. I'd like to recruit with the new gym but play in Lasell."
Lasell's replacement, which will open in the fall, will have seating for 1,200 spectators, a standard-sized court and an $8.5 million price tag—about $8.45 million more than what Lasell cost 101 years ago.
Lasell, by the way, won't be torn down. Gym and jogging classes will still be held there, which is fine: The place wasn't meant for basketball anyway.
•Last week SMU disclosed that the Internal Revenue Service had taken an interest in the school's slush-fund scandal. A school official said that the IRS is investigating whether the football players who received under-the-table payments reported them as income, and that the IRS would probably look into whether the boosters who made the payments had improperly deducted them as business expenses or charitable donations.
•Danny Knight, the best high school wrestler in the country (SCORECARD, Feb. 9), finished his career with a 128-0 record, and his fourth straight state title as he helped Clinton High win Iowa's Class AAA championship. In the 126-pound final, Knight pinned Andy Price in 28 seconds. As of Monday, Knight, who will undergo shoulder surgery within two weeks, still hadn't decided which of five colleges he would attend.
•Sean Higgins, the Los Angeles high school basketball star who wanted out of the letter of intent he signed with UCLA, was released from that commitment by the Collegiate Commissioners Association, which said Higgins had signed under duress. Higgins had told SI (Feb. 23) that his stepfather had threatened him with a baseball bat after he expressed his preference to attend Michigan to be near his father, who lives in a Detroit suburb. As soon as the CCA announced its decision last week, Higgins contacted Michigan coach Bill Frieder, who assured him a scholarship was waiting. "My first reaction was happiness," said Higgins.
A WIN, OF SORTS
Last week we called the Omaha Lancers of the U.S. Hockey League the lowliest of the low. That wasn't quite fair; the Lancers have suffered only one win less season. Pity the poor Sacred Heart Lady Roses, a high school basketball team in Carbondale, Pa. They have lost 120 games in a row over 5½ seasons. Sacred Heart hasn't won since it beat Blue Ridge on Dec. 22, 1981; that game went into overtime. But this season's seven Lady Roses were shining examples of stick-to-itiveness. In their final game they trailed undefeated Riverside High by 44 points after three periods. Then in the final quarter they pumped in 13 points to Riverside's 12. They still lost 75-32 but it was the only time this season that Sacred Heart scored more points in a period than its opponent.
INCIDENT OR PRECEDENT?
For Simone Levant, the last six months have represented a long, unpleasant trip to a court ruling that might have wide-ranging implications. Last fall when LeVant, captain of the women's diving team at Stanford, refused to sign a consent form that stipulated she submit to urine testing at the NCAA championships, she thought her season was over. But the American Civil Liberties Union took up her case, and on Jan. 13 Santa Clara County Superior Court judge Peter Stone issued a temporary restraining order that allowed her to dive in regular-season meets. Last week Stone issued a preliminary injunction that permitted LeVant to compete in the NCAA qualifier over the weekend in Tucson.
Stone ruled that the drug testing constituted an "obtrusive, unreasonable and unconstitutional invasion of privacy" and added that there was a "reasonable probability" LeVant would win her case if it went to trial. The case, however, apparently won't go to trial because the NCAA, fearing a flood of similar challenges, seems to want it to go quietly away. Richard J. Archer, who represented the NCAA, said the NCAA probably won't appeal because LeVant is a senior; her intercollegiate career ended when she failed to qualify for the championships. He added that Stone's ruling was an isolated one and that LeVant based her arguments "only on the California constitution." But the U.S. Constitution also guarantees privacy and protects an individual from illegal search and seizure. And, in fact, decisions in one court often embolden other courts to take similar action.
"I feel wonderful," said LeVant. "I set a precedent." That remains to be seen.
LeVant dived boldly into uncharted waters.
THEY SAID IT
•Billy Gardner, new manager of the Kansas City Royals, upon arriving in Fort Myers, Fla., for the first time in 25 years: "The last time I was here, Howard Johnson's sold only vanilla."
•Marc Polen, agent for overweight pitcher Terry Forster, announcing that his client might play in Japan: "After games, he can be a sumo wrestler."