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NFL labor relations reached a low point last week when the Players Association (NFLPA), which is demanding the right of free agency for its members, rejected two free-agency proposals presented to it by the Management Council, which represents the owners. Pro football owners and players have been at an impasse for months in their efforts to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expired in August 1987.

Why the deadlock? The NFLPA thinks it will win the antitrust suit it filed against the league last fall in U.S. district court in Minneapolis and thereby eliminate the college draft and establish a true free market for players (no court date has yet been set, and this process, including appeals, could take years). The owners insist that such a system would destroy the NFL's stability and competitive balance, and are willing to offer only very limited free agency.

The Management Council labeled its two proposals A and B. Proposal A, said the owners, would improve player benefits and marginally increase free-agency rights; Proposal B would reduce benefits but offer somewhat greater free-agency rights. The owners said they will impose Proposal B on Feb. 1 if no new collective bargaining agreement has been reached by then. The NFLPA argued that the two proposals would do little to increase free agency and labeled them Plan Bad and Plan Worse.

The NFLPA may be overestimating its ability to wage a long fight with management. Owners have discontinued their practice of automatically deducting union dues from paychecks, and a number of players—reportedly as many as half—haven't paid any part of the $2,000 annual fee. In addition, the NFLPA has come under fire from an upstart group, NFL-PRO, that has assailed the union's financial management and bargaining tactics. NFL-PRO, which was founded in October 1987 by Art Wilkinson, an agent who holds a master's degree in labor law, claims to have the support of 200 players; the organization would like to supplant the NFLPA as the players' bargaining representative.

That's not likely to happen soon. NFL-PRO would need the backing of roughly 480 players—30% of the league total of 1,600—before it even could force a vote on the matter. Still, its criticism of the NFLPA has undercut the union's base of support. "The Players Association has put all its eggs into one basket," says NFL-PRO managing director Thorn Gatewood, a former New York Giants wide receiver. "That's not a wise tactic. [NFLPA president Gene] Upshaw has touted the antitrust case so much that they've backed themselves into a must-win situation over the free-agency issue. But free agency isn't the number-one priority of the players." Gatewood says the players' top priority "is better benefits. Medical benefits, continuing education, relocation benefits, pensions—these are things that an effective union could have bargained for."

While Gatewood may be right in saying that free agency is of more interest to pro football's stars than it is to the game's rank and file, it's certainly worth fighting for. On the other hand, the NFLPA shouldn't dismiss NFL-PRO's criticism too hastily. The union needs all the support it can get as it heads into what will probably be a long deadlock.


Ron Fimrite writes in this week's issue (page 20) about the ghosts that may have helped Division II St. Mary's College of Moraga, Calif., defeat football rival Santa Clara earlier this month in the so-called Little Big Game. But there may be another, equally bizarre, secret behind that victory.

Two days before the Gaels' season opener on Sept. 3 against St. Joseph's of Indiana, Jim McDonald, a St. Mary's assistant coach, offered sophomore center Matt Foley $5 to swallow a live, two-inch-long western fence lizard, which had crawled onto Foley's shoe during practice. Foley picked up the wriggling reptile and downed it whole. "I didn't have an opportunity to drink any water," recalls Foley. "The lizard kind of catches in your throat. I felt the first one for about an hour."

The first one? Yes, after St. Mary's routed St. Joseph's 34-0, Foley's teammates insisted that he swallow a lizard before the next game too. Foley agreed, and the Gaels beat Humboldt State 36-10. Foley then said he was full, thanks, and handed over the reptile repasts to his teammates. At least one player downed a lizard before each of St. Mary's eight remaining games, and the Gaels won them all to finish 10-0. Conveniently, the grounds around St. Mary's athletic fields are crawling with fence lizards.

Assistant coach Gordie Finn, who's also a high school biology teacher, assured the players that their ritual is not medically dangerous. Says Foley, "He said that after the lizard hits your stomach, it's gone."


Sugar Ray Leonard's decision to give up the WBC light heavyweight (175-pound limit) crown he earned by knocking out Donny Lalonde in Las Vegas on Nov. 7 suggests how little world boxing titles mean these days. Leonard was also willing to vacate the super middleweight (168) title he won against Lalonde, but was persuaded to keep it by WBC president Josè Sulaimàn.

In case you've lost track, boxing now has four title-sanctioning bodies and 52 "official" world professional titles in 17 different weight divisions.

Basketball writer Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News notes that if Atlanta Hawks guard Spud Webb ever gets traded to the Hornets, he'll become Charlotte's Webb.


On Saturday at Churchill Downs, Alysheba, the 4-year-old colt who has won more money than any other horse in racing history ($6,679,242), was paraded before the crowd of 13,841 in honor of his retirement. Alysheba ended his racing career three weeks ago with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic on the same track. He will be put to stud at Lane's End Farm, near Lexington, Ky.

Alysheba will be near his 13-year-old father, Alydar, who stands at Calumet Farm in Lexington and who was also in the news last week. Calumet's five owners, most of whom are the descendants of the farm's founder, Warren Wright Sr., said they will donate one of Alydar's stud fees for each of the next four years—a projected total of at least $1 million—to the Kentucky Special Olympics. The gift will be the largest by any individual or family in the 20-year history of the Special Olympics.


Sad to say, the revolutionary underwater backstroke technique popularized by Harvard senior David Berkoff (Back to the Future, Aug. 22) has been declared illegal by FINA, the international swimming federation. Berkoff, who set the world record in the 100-meter back three times this year using the technique and won the Olympic silver medal with it, had taken advantage of FINA's vague backstroke rule, which says only that competitors "[shall] swim upon their backs throughout the race."

Berkoff would swim the first 35 meters or so of his race underwater, his hands locked overhead, propelling himself with an undulating dolphin kick. Then—to the gasps of the crowd—he would surface, usually several meters in front of his rivals. This submarine technique (which several others, including 100 gold medalist Daichi Suzuki of Japan, also used at the Olympics) made the backstroke far more exciting to watch.

But FINA's 17-member bureau has held that swim means "swim on the surface" and declared that henceforth backstrokers must come to the surface in the first 10 meters of a race. Although both U.S. Swimming, the American governing body, and the NCAA will hold off on implementing FINA's new interpretation—USS is asking FINA to allow swimmers to stay under for 25 meters—the submarine has essentially been sunk.

"There were three reasons behind the decision," says FINA secretary Ross Wales of the U.S. "One was that it just wasn't backstroke. Two, there was concern for safety—that some young swimmer might stay under too long and not come up. The third reason was based on the selling of the sport: Would fans still think it's interesting after the novelty wears off?"

Berkoff, whose world record of 54.51 seconds will still stand, calls the ruling "a personal slap in the face." He points out that he stays underwater only 16 seconds, compared with more than 55 seconds for synchronized swimmers. And the notion that the stroke isn't exciting is a joke. Says Berkoff, "They're just killing the sport if they're going to knock out people who are innovators."





Human submarine Berkoff stretched his stroke's limits before his new style sank.


•Howard David, a New Jersey Nets radio announcer, after the Nets acquired guard Mike McGee from the Sacramento Kings for second-round draft choices in 1991 and '96: "I hope Sacramento is patient, because one of its picks is in the eighth grade now."