ANALYSIS : BAD CALL : There’s No Real Winner in NFL Strike, and Losses Are Still Being Counted

Times Staff Writer

Lincoln said you can fool some of the people all of the time, but no one ever came up with the mathematical proof or the percentages involved until the football strike of ‘87, when the owners dressed a second tier of players in varsity uniforms and bade the games go on.

Forty percent of the people kept coming. The strike was crushed and the union routed.

But don’t mark this one down as anyone’s victory yet. We’re just about to find out what damage the league suffered.

It is the owners’ genius that while the players bleed all over the landscape, management manages to conceal its wounds until the shooting is over. But not forever.


The 1982 strike, which was called when the league’s popularity was at an all-time high, torpedoed TV ratings, forcing Pete Rozelle to take a cut from the networks five years later and to run to ESPN to make up the difference. By the end of last season, ABC was still down 9.3%, CBS 7.9% and NBC 11.5%. Today, network officials and National Football League pooh-bahs are holding their breath, lest a similar disaffection begins to manifest itself in the overnights.

Of course, if it does, taking a page from our nation’s leaders, the owners can blame the players, the players can blame the owners, and we can re-enact the entire scenario in 1992.

The true bottom line of the strike of ’87 is that neither side should have let it happen. Both did. And all dangers, which were so easily predicted, were fully realized.

The union misread its membership. By striking when so many of its players apparently preferred not to, it might have destroyed itself. It places its last hopes on another antitrust suit. It has just lost the provision by which each player’s $2,400 union dues are deducted from his paycheck, the very concession it gained in 1977 for surrendering the free agency won in the last antitrust action, the John Mackey case.

The owners, by taking a hard line in negotiations and making it even harder as the strike dissolved, may have cost themselves what momentum they had been able to mount since 1982.

If everyone knew they had to avoid a strike, why couldn’t they?

Unlike, say, baseball, in which the union is run by labor professionals and the owners aren’t locked into profits, labor relations in the NFL are still at an early, immature stage, in which neither side fundamentally accepts the other as necessary and valuable and its interests as valid.


Says Paul Martha, the former Pittsburgh Steeler, former counsel to the San Francisco 49ers, intimate of figures as disparate as Dan Rooney and Ed Garvey and the man who helped mediate the ’82 strike:

“There’s always the struggle, particularly in the NFL, which is more important: the people who own the game or the people who make the game? And that’s never been resolved. They try to resolve that question in the collective bargaining process and that’s the wrong place.

“I’m disappointed with both sides. I think the players were somewhat shortsighted and perhaps overplayed their hand.

“The contract has expired without any additional benefits being granted to the players. I mean, how much farther do the owners have to go before they can actually say they have broken the union. I’m sure you’ll see, shortly, the filing of a decertification petition, and maybe an attempt to reorganize the players under a different banner.

“I think ownership, on the other hand, had won. They had a chance in the end to make a deal they could certainly live with, and they didn’t.

“I mean, what are they really left with?”

You could argue that the owners made a bigger mistake when they played their first “replacement” game, tarnishing their season forever more.


Here they are, ready to start again, except the defending champion New York Giants are 0-5. In the No. 2 TV market, the Rams are 1-4.

Team statistics, as usual, are revealing. The improved Houston Oilers are No. 4 in total offense and No. 6 in total defense. The Colts’ individual record for touchdown passes in a game is no longer held by John Unitas, but by Gary Hogeboom.

The owners declared irrevocably that the replacement games would stand but now there’s talk of putting a motion to split the season on the agenda at their meeting this week in Kansas City. Coach John Robinson of the Rams says that his club would be happy to pay all expenses for the project.

Almost every team has players staring daggers at teammates. The strikebreakers have been declared marked men.

Aside from that, it’s football as usual.


As a strike tactic, the replacement games were ingenious. They kept the TV money flowing and undermined the strikers’ resolve.

As football, they were more or less OK. There were some bad ones, some good ones and lots of sloppy ones. It was not major league. Implicit in our notion of a “major league” is employing the best players who can be found, not the second-best while the best are circling the stadium with picket signs.


As games that actually counted in the standings, they were an affront to anyone interested. They stunk to the high heavens.

High up in their executive suites, however, the owners who feature themselves “sportsmen,” or in Tex Schramm’s phrase, “the stewards of the game,” smelled something sweeter, like victory. Many of them seemed to enjoy the spectacle.

And none more than Schramm, the Dallas Cowboys president and moving spirit of the Management Council.

Schramm’s strike team, was, of course, a damned sight more competitive than his real one. His strikebreakers opened at the Meadowlands, where they beat the Jets, while Schramm regaled press box observers with shouts of “Pro Bowl! Pro Bowl!’ when one of his new stars caught a touchdown pass.

A week later, with a crowd of 40,622 in Texas Stadium to watch the Cowboys beat the Philadelphia Eagles, Schramm said: “I’m enjoying it--No, I won’t say that. We don’t like the players being out on strike, but if that’s the way it is, it’s fun working with these young players.”

Since the strike was coming apart at the seams, the strikeball games came to be regarded as something other than a farce, something that was gaining public acceptance.


In fact, attendance never reached 50% of pre-strike levels. In the biggest markets, it was far worse than that, but the numbers were buoyed in non-union towns that happen to be football hot spots, such as Dallas and Denver. A full 10% of the total league attendance from three weeks of strikeball came in two games at Denver’s Mile High Stadium.

TV ratings fell steadily, but you could still turn on your TV and see 8,000 fans rolling around Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for the Falcon-Ram replacement finale, and hear CBS’ Don Criqui say:

“The crowd’s about 8,000. They expected 5. The good news brought ‘em out.”

Brought ‘em out?

The Management Council’s executive committee is dominated by Schramm and Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culverhouse, the crackerjack tax lawyer and another unreconstructed hawk. It was Culverhouse who tipped off the owners’ arrogance and condescension in what seemed intended as a conciliatory statement when the strike was starting to crumble around union leader Gene Upshaw.

Said Culverhouse: “We’ll give Gene whatever he needs for his dignity.”

They didn’t even do that much.

The owners started with a bare-bones proposal, cloaked brilliantly in the usual rhetoric. Their new free-agency system, they noted, would allow 49% of the players to move with only a No. 3 draft pick as compensation. Wonderful. Since there are 22 starting players on a 45-man roster, they had just freed all the bomb squadders to go out and solicit bids.

However, the owners weren’t necessarily playing it cheap from mere meanness. Their economic situation had degenerated in this, the first year of a new TV contract in which they hadn’t gotten a huge raise. The United States Football League competition had tripled their payrolls.


Once the strike started, however, the hawks took over.

If Upshaw was flirting with the idea of real free-agency improvement, in which some players would get unrestricted, uncompensated movement, the owners were adamantly opposed. Upshaw wanted it to be one of several issues but the owners made it No. 1, claiming all the while that the players were doing it.

At Philadelphia in the strike’s first week, when Upshaw tried to move past the free-agency deadlock to other issues, management negotiator Jack Donlan wouldn’t let him.

Two weeks later, when Upshaw and Jesse Jackson managed to get talks reconvened, Schramm said the owners would no longer be asking for a three-year contract--the only thing that had been agreed upon--but a five. In fact, when the talks resumed, they asked for six.

Finally, the only terms they were interested in were U.S. Grant’s--unconditional surrender. They got it, but it took three weeks of strikeball games, when it might have been settled at Philadelphia.

If there were any innocents in this, it was the young and not-so-young hopefuls who poured over the picket lines. Playing football may a job for 1,260 players, but it’s a dream for millions of people. The owners exploited that, and the strikebreakers accepted, gratefully. Most of the strikers would have done the same thing, had their situations been reversed.


There have been many criticisms lodged against Upshaw and the National Football League Players Assn. leadership: that they were heavy-handed, unimaginative, unprepared, unprofessional. Maybe it stems from bad public relations. Maybe it was just too close to being true.


All, however pale before the central charge:

What were they doing on strike in the first place?

Unlike 1982, when the membership was angry, ready for a fight, and dug in for the long haul, the players this year were fat and happy. If they knew that the USFL was the reason for their average pay jumping from $90,000 to $230,000, they still had the money in their pockets and raises waiting in next year’s contract.

Although they voted for one, they were clearly unprepared to strike, a point demonstrated over and over, as when Upshaw visited the Raider camp at Oxnard in August, and his old teammate, Lester Hayes, yelled across the field: “No strike, baby!”

Just before the strike deadline, three Raiders who wound up honoring the picket line were asked what they thought the No. 1 issue was. Each named a different one.

Upshaw told confidantes that he wasn’t keen on free agency, himself, but that it was what most of the members listed No. 1 when they were polled. Of course, they had to put something down.

What the union left unexplored was the far more important factor: What was the players’ depth of commitment to free agency, or any other issue?

Well, this is a bad way to be learning the labor biz, strike and see what happens.

In the end, the union sold out its most loyal members. The Raiders’ Mike Haynes forfeited $193,751 in pay--with nary a whimper--while being reviled along with his mates as “the greedy players.” In return, all the principles he thought he was standing up for were finally abandoned by his union, which sought to save face by filing a suit that won’t be resolved until Haynes is well into civilian life.


“There’s no question that the players really didn’t have an issue that was universal,” says Paul Martha. “I mean, how many players in the NFL really cared enough about the free-agency issue to strike? It really became an issue of solidarity, not free agency.”

What should the union have done?

“Make a deal. There were economic problems. The TV contract didn’t come out to what a lot of owners anticipated. As a matter of fact, the owners ended up taking a cut. A lot of the franchises were reeling from the competition caused by the USFL.

“It was really time to make a short-term deal (which the owners had already agreed to) and let some of these things work themselves out before they went for any real change in the system. I think implicit in the new agreement would have been an increase in benefits, like pension and severance. Those are calculable things that the owners can say, ‘Hey, here’s what they want, here’s what we can give and here’s what it’s going to cost.’

“When you talk free agency or any change in the system in the business of professional sport, you’re talking about something that’s incalculable. And with that comes a certain unknown. And with that unknown comes a fear.”


If a good deal is one that helps both teams, a bad strike is one that screws everything up for everyone.

And this one isn’t over yet.

The players’ suit may take half a decade to be resolved, but a lot of lawyers like the union’s case. They don’t think it will be hard to convince a jury that a system in which one player changes teams as a result of free agency in 10 years amounts to a de facto violation of antitrust law.


Why didn’t the union just file the suit, and then negotiate, and forgo striking? That’s what the NBA Players Assn. has just done. So many questions. Such bad answers.

And if the players win the suit, what then? Do you think they won’t remember how the owners made them knuckle under? Do you think they’d again be inclined to bargain their victory away, as they did with their Mackey-secured gains?

And now we turn back to this compromised season, with the teams trying to repair their fractured camaraderie. The owners can blame anyone they want but it’s their league that they risked trashing in order to keep control of it.

Did anybody learn anything?

Is there an iota more good will anywhere?

One good thing you can say about this strike: It might have been a lot shorter than the next one.