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NFL STRIKE : 1982 : A History Lesson Not Learned

September 23, 1987|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

The strike to end all strikes, it wasn't. No picketing. No violence. Not one raw chicken leg flung.

But what the National Football League walkout and lockout of 1982 lacked in classic labor drama, it more than made up in ill will and in-fighting.

For 57 days, as an NFL season wasted away, management and players stuck their tongues out at each other. The NFL Players Assn. demanded, among other things, that its members receive 55% of the league's gross revenues. The owners told the players to take a hike. So they did, and didn't return until seven regular-season games had been lost, to say nothing of $275 million in revenues and wages. The owners also were forced to return $50 million to the networks.

Nearly five years later, the owners and the NFLPA are at it again, only this time, say those who have played parts in both strikes, the circumstances and commitment aren't entirely similar.

Back then, Ram running back Mike Guman was a third-year player from Penn State. Born in Allentown, Pa., a steel town rich in union tradition, and brought up in Bethlehem, Guman was raised on blue-collar rights. When a strike vote was taken shortly before the NFLPA agreement deadline, Sept. 20, 1982, Guman enthusiastically supported the union's position.

"The last time, there was a feeling that everybody wanted to (strike), that we had to do it, that we have to get this thing done," he said.

"Now it's, 'We're doing it, but let's get the thing settled as fast as we can.' The atmosphere is definitely different than it was in '82. The economic conditions are a little bit different."

Ram safety Johnnie Johnson was another third-year player, somewhat confused with the issues but supportive, nonetheless.

"I had to look up at some of the older guys," he said. "I knew what was on the table, but I didn't understand all the benefits to the degree that I do today.

"Still, after '82, you felt like the last thing both sides would want is a strike. But yet, here we are, with no sign of an agreement."

Some history is in order.

In 1982, the San Francisco 49ers began the year by defeating the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI and, in the process, helped CBS establish an all-time rating high for a sports event, although that mark has since been beaten. Shortly thereafter, the league agreed to a lucrative five-year contract with CBS, NBC and ABC that would begin, of course, with the 1982 exhibition season.

Meanwhile, the players' association, led by Ed Garvey, a feisty, Washington-based lawyer, rallied his membership around the demand for 55% revenue sharing.

There were other concerns--the establishment of a minimum salary scale that guaranteed players certain pay depending on years of service; training camp and playoff pay increases; medical, insurance and retirement benefits; instituting a severance pay system that made easier a retiring player's move from the NFL to another career; the chances of true free agency and the future of the league draft--but the call for 55% of the NFL's gross revenues dominated the negotiations.

The owners refused, of course. Under Garvey's plan, management would have had to relinquish $1.6 billion of its assorted gate receipts and television and radio money during the next four years to the players. To the 28 owners, that was unacceptable.

And thus began the constant posturing and rhetoric that became daily staples.

On it went until midnight, Sept. 20, when Garvey officially instructed union members to strike immediately after a Monday night game between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers. Oddly enough, a similar order was issued Monday evening, again after a game at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Owners responded with a lockout. Team fields, training rooms, weight rooms and equipment were declared off-limits to players. The NFL, for the moment, ceased to exist.

"In 1982, there were some bitter feelings on both sides," said Ram defensive end Gary Jeter, then with the Giants. "We hadn't seen the owners' books and when we finally were able to see them, we were upset at the percentage (of revenue) we were receiving. It wasn't fair.

"Guys were willing to sit out the whole season. We weren't making any money. We were called professional ballplayers, but we weren't being paid like professional ballplayers. There was no severance. We didn't have as good a pension. Overall benefits weren't as good."

As for the demand of 55% of the revenue, Jeter credits Garvey for converting a sometimes divided and confused constituency.

"The 55% was etched in stone in 1982," he said. "Sure, that was a strong stance. I don't think one individual makes the union strong, but I think that Garvey did one great job on selling the membership on the 55%."

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