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Original Issue


How have NFL owners failed? Let me count the ways

Pro football's free-agency plan stinks. The NFL Management Council, after butchering its collective-bargaining negotiations with the players in 1987, is now screwing up the very structure of the game. It's another example of politicians and lawyers telling the football people how to run their sport.

Under the plan imposed by the NFL owners last month, each team protected 37 players. They belong to the home club. The rest of the team's players became free agents. So more than a third of the league's players are free agents until April 1. Anyone can sign them. A few players who have switched teams have done all right; they've made more money. But many of the guys who were left unprotected feel unloved. The ones on the freeze list are envious—why can others be free and not us? The coaches and personnel directors of the good teams hate the plan. "We've worked hard to build an organization," says Bills coach Marv Levy. "Then the rules change, not through hard work, but by a decision."

The bad teams like this system. Dallas president Tex Schramm and Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culverhouse, representing two of 1988's worst teams, are heavy hitters on the Management Council, which drafted the plan. The bad teams can pick up as many new players as they want. The good teams—the top 11—can sign no more than 15.

The worst thing about this plan is that it shows ignorance of what makes a team. It assumes that only two thirds of the players are important and that the rest are excess baggage. What Schramm and Jack Donlan, executive director of the Management Council, don't understand is that a pro football team is a carefully constructed instrument composed of intricate parts: a solid veteran nucleus, a group of young players on the rise, a sprinkling of old pros who are still valuable in the locker room. It takes years to build a mesh like that. To tamper with the parts arbitrarily is to destroy the whole.

That didn't bother the owners. They had other things to worry about, like the antitrust suit the players filed after the strike in 1987. The suit, challenging restrictions on player movement (including the college draft and veteran free agency), is due to go to trial on Nov. 13. Management needed a gimmick to show it had addressed the free-agency issue. The owners needed it because they were haughty during negotiations before the strike. Their bargaining position was no-no-no. We'll talk about anything but free agency.

"Our view is the same as it has been: We are not going to change our structure on free agency," Schramm said. "Except for free agency, nothing is etched in stone," Donlan said.

The remarks were arrogant and stupid. They will not look good in court. When you come to the table, you're supposed to be ready to talk about anything. That's what is known as collective bargaining.

The irony is that in those days the owners could have gotten a much better deal from the players than the scheme they've now inflicted on themselves. The players' stand was softening. They had come up with at least six compromise free-agency proposals, any of which would have freed fewer players than the present system and made it easier for coaches and teams to control their personnel losses. The players were even willing to discuss an NBA-style salary cap, which would have limited the money teams could spend on free agents and, in effect, protected the owners from themselves. Under this plan teams can spend themselves silly if they want to.

The owners could have cut a pretty good deal in 1987, but reasonable compromise has never been their style of bargaining. They've preferred to crush the players' resistance. It's hard to break old habits. So the players filed a lawsuit.

The NFL's lawyers, whose track record includes multiple antitrust losses to the players and another to Al Davis, said don't worry. The suit will never come to trial. The Players Association will run out of money first. Well, here we are, the trial is looming and in panic the owners have come up with their idiotic free-agency plan—which most likely will be ruled illegal. How can it be legal if it deals with only a third of the work force? Many players will never see true free agency at any time in their careers. As Duke law professor John Weistart, who co-wrote the authoritative book The Law of Sports, says, "It was the owners' call. It hasn't been collectively bargained. A court could find that this doesn't comply with the antitrust laws at all."

Well, through Sunday 51 players, none of them big names, had switched teams. You get the feeling teams have a watch-and-wait attitude, a kind of wariness as everyone checks everyone else's roster. Then the full bite of this plan will take hold—until the courts put a stop to the owners' lunacy.