Bleak Future for Gray, Other No. 1s : Struggle Between Agents, Clubs May Cost Them Money

Times Staff Writer

Jerry Gray's coming to Los Angeles was supposed to have been a modern-day version of the Beverly Hillbillies, his all-time favorite television show.

The Rams' first-round draft pick, the young man nicknamed Jed since grammar school, rose from humble beginnings in Lubbock, Tex., to become the best defensive back at the University of Texas since Johnnie Johnson.

And so it seems that Gray should have been able to close his eyes like ol' man Clampett, fire a gun into a hillside and strike it rich.

That hasn't happened. Up from the ground there has come no bubbling crude.

Jerry Gray and dozens of other NFL rookies are busy these days, wondering why they couldn't have been born a few years earlier, putting them in the draft when the presence of the United States Football League forced player salaries out of sight. Oh, to be Steve Young in 1983.

"With the competition from the other league, there was a lot of money going around," said Gray, who is still unsigned. "Now there is no competition."

For the NFL, that means it's time for sweet revenge. With the USFL out of its hair, the NFL is making life difficult for college seniors who want to become instant millionaires.

Thus, five days before most training camps open, only four of 28 first-round draft picks have been signed.

Welcome to the year of the holdout.

"It's unprecedented," said Leigh Steinberg, an attorney who represents four first-round picks. "There's never been a year like this one."

You know something's up when a group of sports agents, usually as cordial to one another as a Hatfield is to a McCoy, convene for a friendly meeting to discuss the state of their art.

But that's what happened Monday in Chicago. Several prominent agents, including Steinberg, got together to exchange ideas and strategies to fight the NFL, which is taking this opportunity to roll back salaries to pre-USFL wages.

The agents contend that NFL management is pushing too hard. They say that they realize the gold rush is over in football but are not going to let their first-round players sign for peanuts.

"If they're trying to go back to the World War II era, and ticket prices haven't even gone down, it's like what are you trying to do?" said Calvin Guidry, who represents the Rams' Gray. "It's inconceivable to think we will allow salaries to be rolled back to 1981 levels."

The NFL is standing strong.

"What we have here is a reverse," said Gil Brandt, vice president of the Dallas Cowboys. "Last year, there was a guy named Bill Oldenburg (former owner of the L.A. Express) who completely inflated the market. Everyone over-reacted."

Brandt, though, said the rollback is not revenge-motivated.

"I don't think anybody wants to stick it to someone extra hard," he said. "I think we want to be fair. When you sign somebody at a pre-USFL price with a 10% to 15% increase, I think that's fair."

So the stalemate continues.

Steinberg said that in his 11 years in the business, he's never had a player miss training camp over a contract dispute.

But unless he can pull off a miracle, all four of his first-round players will be holdouts come the opening of training camp. And, unlike veterans, NFL rules prohibit a rookie without a contract from practicing with his team.

Steinberg represents tackle Ken Ruettgers, selected seventh in the first round by the Green Bay Packers; defensive end Ron Holmes, chosen eighth by Tampa Bay; guard Jim Lachey, taken 12th by the San Diego Chargers and linebacker Duane Bickett, picked fifth by the Indianapolis Colts.

Steinberg said the Colts are offering Bickett almost an identical salary a team offered one of Steinberg's player in 1981--$1.1 million for four years.

He said there is no reason for the NFL front-office panic.

"This is a healthy sport," he said.

How healthy depends on where you get your figures.

A source close to the industry revealed that the NFL grossed $720 million in 1984 and that each team showed an average of $3.6 million in gross profit. The Indianapolis Colts made $9 million in 1984, the source said.

Jim Miller, NFL Management Council director of administration, said those numbers are a little high. Every year, each NFL team submits results of its individual audit to a big-eight accounting firm, which tallies the numbers and presents a report to the the NFL. Miller said that reports show that each team made an average of $2.6 and $2.7 million last season.

The furor over escalating salaries surfaced at the 1984 NFL owners' meeting in Hawaii. The NFL Management Council warned owners that if salaries kept increasing at the current rate, teams could be in the red by as early as the 1985 season.

The salary increases, caused by the bidding war with the USFL, certainly were nothing to sneeze at. In 1983, NFL salaries increased by 24%. In 1984, that number had increased to 26%.

Brandt said the average signing bonus for a first-round player in 1982 was $286,000. By 1984, that average had increased to $700,000.

Sure, the NFL is still a money maker, but as Brandt said, "We wanted to keep it healthy."

Miller said the NFL's tightening of its purse strings could only be expected.

"Last year agents were beating clubs over the head with the leverage they had," he said. "This year they're asking clubs to be fair. I don't want to say it's sour grapes, but what we've seen is a natural leverage swing, something that's occurred in sports for the last 100 years."

The agents contend that the NFL was unrealistic to think that salaries would have continued at such an alarming rate.

"If salaries would have continued at that rate, there would have been serious difficulties," Steinberg said. "We all would be responsible for that. Agents and lawyers have a right to financial future of the sport. We don't want to kill the sport."

And agents point out the NFL average salary ($160,000 a year) is still far below other major sports. The average salary in baseball, for instance, is $320,000.

Agents wonder how NFL teams can roll back salaries and still increase ticket prices. Agents also wonder how astronomical the new NFL television contract will be when the old one expires after the 1986 season.

The NFL thinks justice has finally prevailed.

"I've been signing players for 26 years," Brandt said. "In 1961, Bob Lilly signed with the Cowboys for a $4,000 signing bonus and $12,000 a year. He was born 25 years too early but you don't hear him complain. That's the rub of the green. The hardest thing for an agent to say to his client is that he overestimated the market."

And all the players can do is wait.

The Rams did sign two more 1985 draft choices Tuesday, offensive guard Duval Love and running back Marlon McIntyre, bringing their total of signed draft picks to seven.

Love, a 6-foot-3, 263-pounder, was a three-year starter at UCLA and was a 10th-round selection by the Rams.

McIntyre, 5-11 and 230 pounds, was an eighth-round selection out of the University of Pittsburgh. McIntyre gained 250 yards on 50 carries as a senior.

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