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Commentary : NFL Players' Demand for Free Agency May Be a Football Folly

September 20, 1987|KEN DENLINGER | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Some of us who have grown up -- and grown cynical -- during the great labor-management sports battles wonder this about the NFL players: might the only thing worse than fighting for free agency be actually getting it?

Let's say the NFL owners came down with a sudden case of generosity this morning. Let's imagine Jack Donlan calling Gene Upshaw and saying: "You guys are absolutely right. Free agency is morally and legally correct -- and yours."

The trouble with the football union's hot issue would be what also hampers arms-control talks: verification. Why wouldn't the football owners, in theory, act the way the baseball owners seem to be acting in practice?

For whatever reasons, free agents in baseball have been getting less and less free. The owners congratulate themselves for (finally) exhibiting sanity and prudent management after more than a decade of salaries spiraling off the balance sheet; the players cry collusion.

The day before NFL players have threatened to strike, an arbitrator is scheduled to rule on collusion charges by baseball players against management.

If the pitcher of the '80s, Jack Morris, is peddling himself and every team -- even the pitcher-poor Yankees -- shut their checkbooks, a silent conspiracy seems afoot.

Guess where baseball learned its latest tactic? The notion of agreeing to a reasonable form of free agency and then taking it away, slowly but effectively through inaction, came from -- ta da! -- the NFL.

Free agency almost always is the prickly issue in NFL labor talks. Ironically, the players had it once. Total, no-strings-attached free agency was in force when the players won a court case late in 1975.

Some matters that included the union being close to broke caused 100 percent free agency to be negotiated into the current system. But under that system, only one free agent has changed teams in the last 10 years.

Wonderful players, among them Too Tall Jones in his prime, allegedly became free. Nobody bid for them. Too high a draft-choice price, 27 other teams insisted.

Sound familiar?

Well, the NFL players say the '80s are different from the '70s, that sound economic reasons now all but order owners to bid for players. In two words, those sound economic reasons are: luxury boxes.

Slap some fancy carpet over concrete, haul in a dozen chairs stuffy as those who will occupy them; pass out finger sandwiches, roll in a couple of television monitors and you have the ownership equivalent of found money.

It's fairly safe to say that Al Davis has followed a trail of luxury boxes through a good deal of Southern California these last several years. Luxury boxes got Robert Irsay to take the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis; luxury boxes might keep Jack Kent Cooke from hauling the Redskins out of RFK Stadium.

For an owner, the peachy thing about luxury boxes is that his lodge brothers do not share in the swag. No 60-40 split, like gate receipts; no 50-50 arrangement, like television revenue. With luxury boxes, a penny earned is a penny kept.

The better his team, the more an owner can charge for the suite seats. That seems a decent enough incentive. NFL players once argued that the owners had no economic reason to bid on free agents, because teams were playing to near capacity and the TV money was fixed.

Luxury boxes are the new factor that might make free agency pay off for, say, Joe Robbie in his privately financed new stadium. Free agency surely would get Davis the quarterback he seems to need to make Raiders games unfair.

Also, there are empty seats for Atlanta Falcons and Buffalo Bills games. A fresh and talented player would help fill them. Houston reportedly is listening to move-bids from Jacksonville; bringing a competent team would be useful.

With every advantage possible, the New Orleans Saints have yet to charge past .500 in the 20-year history of the franchise. The competent management already in place plus free agency could produce a Super Bowl appearance.

These are the practical ways teams might be more willing to settle for a reasonable form of free agency. The usual ones of being fair and compassionate to players never work.

Many would argue that 27 NFL owners might be as interested in conspiring against Davis as well as the players -- and that they could get both by voting against free agency. That way, Davis would not have a free-spending advantage. The only problem with that idea is that the Raiders already have won more games than any team since 1960.

The players point out how baseball and football have changed economic signals in about a decade. Baseball has stopped much of its me-only money policy; football seems less willing to share its wealth.

But what about the labor policy for each sport over the last decade or so? Has mostly unrestricted free agency hurt baseball? Has almost no free agency blessed football?

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