View Full Version : History shows a work stoppage is risky move for NFL, players

02-25-2011, 01:07 PM
History shows a work stoppage is risky move for NFL, players
By Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY
By Dennis Cook, AP

Quarterback Jay Schroeder stands in front of fellow Redskins teammates as they picket near the team's facility in Sept. 1987. No Redskins crossed the picket line during the 1987 strike.


It was October 1987, two weeks into the strike that marked the last work stoppage in the NFL and seriously tested Everson Walls' resolve as he paced along the sidewalk outside the entrance to Dallas Cowboys headquarters.

Walls, a Pro Bowl cornerback during the 1980s, was the Cowboys' union representative. But by the second week of the strike, after the team's biggest stars —Tony Dorsett, Randy White, Danny White and Ed "Too Tall" Jones— had crossed the picket line and returned to work to play in replacement games, Walls was a solitary symbol of whatever was left of the Cowboys players' resistance.

When the strike began, more than two dozen Cowboys players picketed. As the walkout lingered, players scattered, leaving Walls as The Lone (Star) Picketer.

One morning, a car pulled up. It was driven by safety Vince Albritton.

Former Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls says he's still stung by the 1987 strike.

"Whatcha doing?" Albritton said through the window, as Walls recalls.

"Holding down the fort," Walls replied.

Albritton parked, then doubled the picketing presence that day. Walls figures he strutted alone for four or five days. The strike, fueled by demands for a liberalized free agency system, ended after nearly a month without a new collective bargaining agreement.

"Disheartening," Walls says.

Rather than shutting down the sport amid the strife, owners staged three weeks of replacement games that included 89 veterans who crossed the picket line — many citing a fear they would lose annuities included in their contracts if they refused to work.

"They didn't have to go," Walls said recently. "All they had to do was talk to their financial guy. It's against the law to touch an annuity. I had the same annuity they had. They used that as an excuse."

More than 23 years have passed. Walls says it still stings.

During the recent Super Bowl week in the Dallas area, Dorsett hosted a gala to benefit the foundation that Walls established with former teammate Ron Springs. Walls maintains a part of him still seethes about Dorsett and the three other Cowboys stars who crossed the picket line.

Dallas, with club President Tex Schramm positioned as one of the NFL's key labor influences, was a hot-button precinct in 1987.

"We couldn't compete against those four guys going across," Walls says. "We had no chance. And then I had to come back and play with those guys?"

Such sentiments have rushed back for Walls — along with varied memories for other NFL figures who lived through labor issues during the 1980s — as the league is again rumbling with the uncertainty of a potential work stoppage.

"This should be a scared-straight moment for today's players," says Walls, who won a Super Bowl XXV ring with the New York Giants and played 13 NFL seasons through 1993. "You realize that this is a business and how it's directly related to your future. I hope they can see what we've gone through."

The NFL's collective bargaining agreement expires March 3. If a deal isn't reached, there's the threat that owners will institute a lockout— which probably would be immediately challenged by a tactic that first surfaced two years after the 1987 strike: union decertification. If that scenario unfolds, it is possible that history could repeat itself with the sides squaring off in federal court over an antitrust lawsuit.

In addition to compelling images from past labor battles — such as then-Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason sitting down in the path of a bus that was to transport replacement players from the team's headquarters in 1987 — there are perhaps valuable lessons that add context to the current dispute.

In 1982, players also staged a strike, for 57 days, that resulted in a shortened nine-game season. There was also a training camp strike in 1974, and brief summer stoppages in 1970 and 1968.


NFL players — amplifying through their Let Us Play commercial on the Internet and with the often-repeated talking point that it's the owners who are threatening a work stoppage — haven't as much as hinted at a strike.

And on the other side, no one has dared suggest any replacement games. That decision by NFL owners in 1987 backfired, shifting sentiment toward striking players.

"I remember being at Scoreboard's Restaurant with Joe Jacoby and the boys, watching the scab Redskins playing Dallas on Monday Night Football," says Rick "Doc" Walker, a former Washington Redskins tight end who worked a non-football job while on strike in 1982 and by 1987 was retired from the NFL, working in the news media.

Jacoby, at the time, was the Redskins' all-pro left tackle.

"It was so weird watching them cheer for the scabs, but those games counted in the standings," Walker added. "In the end, they still wanted to beat the Cowboys."

No Redskins veterans crossed the picket line in 1987, yet their replacements were 3-0. As was the case after the 1982 strike, the Redskins won the Super Bowl while again making a strong case for the value of solidarity.

"Those teams had great leadership," recalls Walker, who now co-hosts a D.C.-area afternoon sports talk show with former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson. "Guys knew they had to stay together, no matter what. It's the aim of the league in these situations to form division in the ranks.

"That's what these players today, who are not business-savvy, have to understand. This is not personal. It's all about business."

Until the current CBA (extended five times) was established in 1993, the big battle for players was free agency. For decades, it was virtually impossible for players to switch teams as free agents — and command bidding wars for their services — because the system allowed for heavy compensation to teams that lost free agents.

That's not the issue now, with leaders on both sides agreeing that a system tying free agency to a salary cap has proved palatable. The big sticking point now — more so than issues such as expanding the regular season to 18 games and a rookie wage scale — is determining the players' share of revenue.

The current pact dictates that players earn 59.5% of revenue, after the first $1 billion is applied to costs associated with growing the game. The NFL generated $9.3 billion in 2010. The NFL Players Association maintains that when cost credits are applied, the revenue split is roughly 50-50. Owners are seeking another $1 billion a year in cost credits, which the union contends is an 18% rollback that is unjustifiable — particularly with no NFL franchises losing money and without a single team besides the publicly owned Green Bay Packers fully disclosing its books. The NFL, which cited costs as the trigger to opt out of the CBA early, maintains that the union's independent audit of revenue is as much as it is willing to disclose.

As this is occurring, the NFL rides a wave of popularity and revenue. A total of 111 million U.S. viewers watched Super Bowl XLV this month — the largest audience for a single program in U.S. television history. Furthermore, Forbes concludes that NFL revenue grew 43% between 2005 and 2009, while total player compensation has doubled since the CBA was last extended in 2006. The average NFL franchise, according to Forbes, is worth $1.02 billion.

Such staggering indicators of the league's health, Walker says, should also connect to lessons learned from other professional sports. During the span in which the NFL has enjoyed its sustained run of labor peace, Major League Baseball, the NHL and the NBA have all had seasons affected by work stoppages.

Baseball canceled its World Series in 1994, then suffered a significant drop-off in attendance upon its return. Hockey lost the entire 2004-05 season.

"Baseball can really remind you," Walker says. "If you cook the golden goose, it could change history."

The risk of slowing the game's momentum with a work stoppage is hardly lost on NFL owners. While teams have taken measures to prepare for a work stoppage (such as writing lockout clauses into contracts of assistant coaches and announcing ticket refund policies), several owners maintain that such actions are merely indicative of last-resort scenarios.

"Work stoppages are always difficult on the fans," Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II says. "That's something everybody's got to keep in mind. My dad (Dan, the franchise's chairman) used to say there's enough money in this game for everybody. I think that's still the case. We've just got to figure out a good system that works for everybody."

Like Rooney, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay grew up in the game around a team run by his father, the late Bob Irsay. Like the players on the other side of the labor battles of the 1980s, he has distinct memories.

In 1982, when the Colts were in Baltimore, Irsay worked in the personnel department and ticket office. He remembers how then-coach Frank Kush summoned him during the strike to work with the assistant coaches — in an unusual manner.

"He had all of our assistant coaches gardening outside our complex," Irsay recalls, laughing at memory. "They were literally outside with wheelbarrows and dirt, planting plants. That was a different time. We don't want to go through that again."

Irsay has quite the different view of how a significant work stoppage could affect his business this time. The Colts are a hot item, with a waiting list of 23,000 for season tickets, and are slated to host Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium in February 2012.

"We've never not played the title game in 90 years," Irsay said, referring to the NFL's 91-year history and mindful of the nine-game regular season in 1982.

"There's historical context, and you learn from things," Irsay added. "And you have to also say, 'There are some things that are not applicable.' "

Owners argue that they opted out of the current CBA because the business model doesn't work. Whether that applies or not to the next CBA represents the crux of negotiations.

02-25-2011, 01:08 PM
Yet the possibility of a lockout raises the specter that a crucial legal weapon used by the union during the last dispute — decertification — might still apply.

The NFL recently filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board that contends the union's strategy is to file an antitrust lawsuit rather than negotiate. The union disputes that, armed with a history showing it has made its most significant progress while battling the league on the grounds of antitrust violations.

On the day the 1987 strike ended, the NFLPA filed an antitrust lawsuit, then ultimately decertified and supported a subsequent suit (White v. NFL) that led to the 1993 CBA.

In the current scenario, the NFLPA might block a lockout by decertifying. It is unlawful to institute a lockout against a non-bargaining agent, which the NFLPA would become if it decertifies, having collected enough signature cards from players to decertify.

In any event, the outcome of such high-stakes maneuvers is uncertain.

"I think the players are in a really good position," says agent Tom Condon, a former union president. "At one time, I thought the owners had the leverage, but it's swung to even. And the more you get to even, the closer you get to having a deal."

Says Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead negotiator: "The No. 1 strategy … is good-faith negotiation. If we get to early March and there's not an agreement, I don't know what decision the clubs would make, but they're certainly prepared for the full range of alternatives.

"Once the agreement expires, I think everybody understands what the options are, and we'll all have to assess the situation at the time."

Although both sides maintain that the early March deadline will trigger a fallout if a CBA isn't reached, the mark on the calendar is a significant difference from previous work stoppages that began during the season in the 1980s and before that in training camps.

While a stoppage beginning in March would threaten normal offseason team activities (such as minicamps and free agent signings), a more pronounced impact would obviously occur with a lengthy stoppage that affects training camp and the regular season.

The April 28-30 draft will be held no matter what occurs.

Players are paid the bulk of their salaries during the season.

"They're in offseason now," says Billy Joe DuPree, who played tight end for the Cowboys during the 1970s and early '80s and co-wrote a book with Spencer Kopf released last year, The Unbroken Line, that revisits the 1982 strike. "The urgency won't come until someone is supposed to start issuing big checks."

If there's a work stoppage this year, it doesn't appear that players will have to determine whether to cross the picket line — although their resolve in supporting the NFLPA might ultimately be tested.

Walls remembers how the Cowboys were so torn in 1987 that Randy White and Dorsett had a heated confrontation during a union meeting — before the strike.

Order was restored by Nate Newton, a guard who used to weigh well over 300 pounds.

"If it wasn't for Nate Newton, we would've had a real volatile situation on our hands," Walls recalled. "He joked around a lot, but Nate was the baddest boy on the team. Nobody — not even Randy — could mess with him."

Within weeks, White and Dorsett crossed the picket line — after White nearly ran over Dorsett when barreling his truck past the picket line.

Recalling the incident, Walls sounds as if he's on the picket line.

"That's what management counts on in these labor situations," he says. "Divide and conquer."




The NFL Players Association holds its first meeting, at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which is across the street from the NFL's current headquarters. Players from all but one of the NFL's 12 teams (the Chicago Bears) join. Demands include a $5,000 minimum salary, salary protection against injuries and a stipulation that clubs pay for players' equipment. Key leaders: Don Shula, Norm Van Brocklin and Frank Gifford.


Club owners refuse to recognize the NFLPA as a collective bargaining agent for players, but NFL Commissioner Bert Bell— at the risk of being fired — eventually does before Congress and later establishes a pension plan for players. Later that year, the Supreme Court rules in (William) Radovich v. NFL that the NFL doesn't possess the same antitrust exemptions as Major League Baseball. Owners agree to the previous demands by the players but don't implement changes.


The AFL Players Association is formed.


The NFLPA is recognized by owners. It votes to stage its first strike. Owners counter with a lockout. A brief July stoppage results in the first collective bargaining agreement, which sets a $9,000 minimum salary for rookies and $10,000 for veterans. Players are guaranteed $50 for each exhibition game.


NFLPA and AFLPA merge. NFL players push for Eddie Meador to lead the new group; AFL players want Jack Kemp. John Mackey is chosen as a compromise candidate and is traded to the San Diego Chargers before eventually being forced to retire. The NFLPA also petitions and becomes first the pro sports union to receive certification from the National Labor Relations Board, a government agency that conducts elections for union representation. After a brief strike, players gain the right to bargain through agents.


Ed Garvey is hired as the NFLPA's first executive director.


Declaring "no freedom, no football," players strike July 1. With non-union players vying for jobs in training camp, veterans return Aug. 10. Owners don't budge on demands, including liberalized free agency, elimination of the draft, arbitration and guaranteed contracts. In 1975, fewer than half of the players pay union dues — a sign of weakened support.


The NFLPA scores another antitrust victory in Mackey v. NFL, a case that originated in 1971. The victory eliminates the compensation clause known as the Rozelle Rule— which dictated that a team losing a free agent would get equal value in return. Despite the court victory and a settlement that produces a new CBA, free agency remains restricted, as compensation is tied to draft picks awarded on the basis of salaries received by departing free agents, and teams maintain a right of first refusal.


In the most extensive work stoppage in NFL history, players demand a 55% share of revenue and stage a 57-day strike. The walkout begins Sept. 21, after two regular-season games are played. With the season in jeopardy of being canceled (despite the efforts of mediator Sam Kagel), the strike ends abruptly Nov. 16 when a tentative agreement includes $60 million in "money now" benefits being paid to players that essentially covered salaries lost during stoppage. A new CBA is signed Dec. 5. It includes an improved benefits package. The revamped season consists of a nine-game regular season and an altered playoff format that allows 16 of 28 teams to qualify for a Super Bowl tournament.


Gene Upshaw, union president since 1980, becomes the NFLPA's executive director. With one of 500 eligible players receiving a free agent offer in 1982, Upshaw has a mandate to liberalize free agency.


When players call for a strike after two games, owners stage replacement games, primarily using non-union players rather than shutting down the sport. Replacements, supplemented by 89 veteran players league-wide who crossed picket lines — including Joe Montana, Lawrence Taylor, Tony Dorsett, Randy White, Danny White, Steve Largent, Ed "Too Tall" Jones and Mark Gastineau— play three games that count in the standings for a shortened, 15-game regular season. On Oct. 15, players vote to end a 24-day strike without a new CBA. The same day, the NFLPA files an antitrust suit, Powell v. NFL, on which Judge David Doty in 1988 rules on the side of players.


The NFL institutes Plan B free agency, which allows teams to protect 37 players from entering the market and stipulates teams can retain free agents by matching offers or receive compensation. The union decertifies, paving the way for more antitrust cases, including (Freeman) McNeil v. NFL, which challenges free agency rules.


About 700 players accept payments from the NFL for marketing rights, abandoning the NFLPA as their group licensing agent. The NFLPA calls the payments bribes.


The players win a lawsuit that declares the Plan B system illegal.


Players file White v. NFL class-action suit in the name of the Philadelphia Eagles' Reggie White, prompting a return to the bargaining table. A settlement includes the first CBA since the 1982 pact expired in 1987 and a system dictated by a salary cap and liberalized free agency.

March 2006

After twice agreeing to push back the deadline, the NFL and NFLPA agree to a fifth extension of the CBA. Owners vote 30-2 in favor of the new deal, with negative votes by Ralph Wilson (Buffalo Bills) and Mike Brown (Cincinnati Bengals).

September 2006

Roger Goodell succeeds Paul Tagliabue as NFL commissioner. :banging::banging::banging:

March 2008

Kevin Mawae succeeds Troy Vincent as union president.

May 2008

Owners vote for an early opt-out clause in the CBA, citing rising costs.

August 2008

Upshaw dies of pancreatic cancer.

March 2009

DeMaurice Smith is elected as NFLPA executive director.

March 2010

The CBA enters its final year, the first "uncapped" year in the NFL since 1993.