Powell Says Reason Is the Reason There Will Be No NFL Strike
The road to labor peace in sports is often pockmarked with ill will, strikes and lockouts.
Marvin Powell, the new president of the NFL Players Assn., is looking at it a different way. He’s fond of a quotation from Isaiah I:18: “Come now, and let us reason together.”
A former All-American tackle at USC, Powell has played in five of the last seven Pro Bowls as a New York Jet.
Also a law student for the last four years, Powell prefers negotiation to confrontation. And he predicts that the athletes will reach a suitable accommodation with the owners on the NFL’s two major labor issues of the next 12 months.
--Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s proposal for random drug testing as a compulsory procedure for all players this year.
--The players’ proposal for limited free agency in the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement starting next year.
“I’m totally committed to negotiating as the only way to settle an argument,” Powell said recently. “And I’m confident that negotiation will work for us.
“You’ll see a (drug) settlement that will be agreeable to both sides before another season starts. Then we’ll put together a new bargaining agreement that will be reasonable and acceptable to both sides. We won’t strike. We won’t have to.”
Powell said that Gene Upshaw, who has succeeded Ed Garvey as the NFLPA’s executive director when Garvey became a deputy state’s attorney in Wisconsin, shares those views.
“Garvey was one of the greatest things that ever happened to our union,” Powell said. “He’s the one who taught us that football is a business as well as a game. But a lot of the players didn’t understand him at first.
“At first, we didn’t understand the issues, either,” Powell said, meaning the issues that led to the NFL’s strikes in 1974 and 1982. “The thing that Garvey did that helped the most was educational--he educated the media, too.
“But at the start (of the 1982 turmoil), he came across as too aggressive, too antagonistic to the owners. Most people saw him that way--most players along with most owners and writers. And the perception lingered. It still lingers--unfairly to him.”
Calling Upshaw a healing influence, Powell said: “Gene has put an end to the constant friction we had with the owners when Ed Garvey was here. We’re still following Ed’s lead, but we’re moving in ways that are perceived to be less abrasive. We are still a powerful union. We just aren’t out throwing our muscles around.”
Powell believes this is as it should be. Now in his next-to-last year of study at a New York law school, he has been advocating a more diplomatic NFLPA approach for some time.
Because of his attitude and development as a leader, he was elected to head the NFL players at their Hawaii meeting in April, succeeding Tom Condon of the Kansas City Chiefs.
On the way home to take his law-school semester finals, Powell reappeared in the news pages. The Jets called a press conference to announce that they had just cut him from their squad.
Two weeks later, he was recalled from waivers and traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a draft pick in 1987, although he must make the team for the Jets to receive the draft choice.
At 30, Powell is four to six years younger than many of the NFL’s other leading offensive linemen, and he’s only two winters removed from his last Pro Bowl.
Did he slip that much last season--when, after holding out for a week, he started the last 15 Jet games?
Or were the Jets uncomfortable with a union president on their roster? They are owned by industrialist Leon Hess.
The league has a long history of firing player reps and other union leaders.
Since 1972, pro clubs have cut five NFLPA presidents. John Mackey was cut by the Baltimore Colts, Bill Curry by the Houston Oilers, Kermit Alexander by the Philadelphia Eagles, Len Hauss by the Washington Redskins, and Powell by the Jets.
Nevertheless, neither Powell nor his representative, Bradley Peter, charged the Jets with bias.
“I’ve been too busy in school to give it much thought,” Powell said.
Peter, a lawyer in Napa, said: “At the Jets’ press conference, (Coach) Joe Walton said the decision was based on Marvin’s field performance. It’s difficult for me to believe this about a guy his age who’s started every game for them since his rookie year. In such cases, NFL teams always do it another way. They usually bring the veteran to training camp and release him there.”
For Powell, in the meantime, life goes on. He allots several hours a day to law books, to his family, to workouts, to his political party, and to his new job as a union leader.
Son of a Fort Bragg, N.C., soldier, Powell supports a wife and three children and contributes to New York’s Republican party.
“The GOP is committed to a strong economy, and nothing helps the little man more,” he said, acknowledging that many others with his background are independent voters or Democratic. “I went to USC a Democrat and after four years of political science, came out a conservative.”
In New York a few years ago Powell occasionally talked publicly about his political goals. He said he was on course to become the United States’ first black President. But in his new posture, he is noncommittal today on his future.
“Events will take care of themselves,” he said when asked when he will start running for office.
He called his four years at USC the most influential of his life.
“I was in junior high school in North Carolina when I saw the Trojans on TV and decided to attend USC,” he said. “It’s the wisest move I’ve made, other than persuading my wife to marry me. The aura of USC, the tradition, the education you get there--it’s a very special place.”
He also sees his new NFLPA role as a learning experience.
“No law student could ask for more than to be the president of a major union,” Powell said.
Like other successful politicians, he insists that his constituents will lead him--not vice versa.
“My job as NFLPA president is to see that the mandate of the players is addressed,” he said. “I will advocate whatever they’re for.”
Surveys show that 72% of the players oppose compulsory drug testing without probable cause. And in their next bargaining agreement, 75% want free agency--supplanting the binding reserve clause.
“It happens that I’m one of the 72% and one of the 75%,” Powell said. “But if I weren’t, I’d do everything in my power to accomplish (what the union wants).”
Most critics say NFL player-owner negotiation on free agency and drugs will be more difficult than Powell foresees.
For one thing, the owners, citing some horror stories in baseball, vigorously oppose the idea of creating a bunch of millionaire free agents in football.
“I’m sure they’d give free agency to 25-year NFL veterans,” Powell said. “Wouldn’t you? Would you give it to 21-year veterans, 20, 19? We’ll come to an agreement on this, you can count on it.”
Mandatory, in-season drug testing on a random basis for everyone who plays pro football--the concept that is No. 1 on the NFL’s list of 1986 labor priorities--is something else.
The experts have been telling Powell this:
--There is no middle ground, no room for negotiation, on such a concept.
--Words, mandatory and everyone are unbending and dictatorial .
--Such words are simply non-negotiable.
--Baseball’s player-owner negotiations have been stuck on these precise words all year.
--Testing can be willed, or ordered unilaterally by Rozelle, but not compromised, or negotiated.
--If ordered, it can’t be enforced without the players’ permission.
“We’ll find a way to negotiate,” Powell said. “At the moment, the players and owners have a (bargaining agreement) policy on drug testing that was spelled out and agreed to by all. This policy (authorizing drug tests at prescribed times) has the force of law. It can’t be legally overturned by one man or by one signatory against the wishes of the other signatory.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that the players will stand on every word of their agreement with the owners until hell freezes over, Powell said.
He sides with the Roman emperor who once observed: “Reason can in general do more than blind force.”
“We’ll reason it out,” Powell said.”