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NFL STRIKE: DAY 1 : Pro Football : Somebody Should Put a Stop to This, While There's Still Time

September 23, 1987|Bob Oates

Every now and then, the National Football League comes up with a really mean-spirited, bad idea.

It may have hit bottom with this one--playing games that count in the standings with kids, rejects and assorted other low-quality players.

Conceivably, the stadium crowds and the television ratings will be pretty good, at least at first. This is football, after all, and it will have a certain curiosity appeal.

But the NFL disgraces itself by putting on such games and announcing seriously that if the results determine the championship races this year, so be it.

Call it the Joker Football League.

This is like Warner Bros. pouting about not having Robert Redford, and sending for me.

What happens to the 0-2 New York Giants, for instance, if their substitute team loses three straight before the strike ends and knocks them out of a chance for the playoffs?

The NFL champions dethroned by a strike team?

Happily, the JFL schedule won't start this week. The club owners, having lost their big leaguers to a strike, want to polish their Class D teams for a few days before charging their fans big league prices for a look.

Maybe they'll call a reverse before then.

Pro football may be the only industry that has a strike every time a collective bargaining agreement expires.

This is the third one in a dozen years.

The problem, it seems obvious, is finding a sane way to divide the league's massive receipts--which are about $750 million a year.

It seems equally obvious that the best solution is revenue sharing--of the kind practiced in the National Basketball Assn.

The NBA commits 53% of its gross receipts to the players for salaries and bonuses, with the rest going to the owners for expenses and profits.

In recent years, the NFL has also paid its players about half its gross receipts. But, unfortunately for the NFL's veteran players, the league's millions have been disbursed haphazardly, with too much going to new, young talent, for example.

The share for NFL veterans is far under 50%, and it has been falling steadily since the United States Football League collapsed.

A written agreement to divide revenues fairly wouldn't solve everything, but it would make everything easier to solve.

Again this year, the missing ingredient in NFL labor negotiations is enlightened leadership from the club owners.

Whenever Commissioner Pete Rozelle is excluded, as he is in all of pro football's labor fights, this is a league virtually devoid of statesmen.

It can also be argued that on the other side, the 28 player representatives are clearly something less than world-class leaders. No one, however, thinks of a defensive tackle as a statesman. Nobody expects that.

But a bent for leadership is hardly too much to expect of an individual who is smart enough to own and run an NFL club.

The problem with most NFL owners is that, to paraphrase a former U.S. politician, they're against labor leaders in the same sense that dogs are against cats.

Not once this year has a group of NFL owners sat down around a table to talk with a group of players.

If they had, they might have learned that the players haven't been asking for unfettered free agency, which is a management term.

What they're asking is the right to move to other clubs, if they wish, at some point in their careers--after four, six or eight years--if they last that long. The time frame is negotiable.

That probably doesn't sound unreasonable to most Americans. But the NFL won't even discuss it.

There are two reasons why it doesn't make much sense for a sports fan to take sides in a football strike:

--When the players are making an average $230,000 a year, they're already overpaid.

--When the owners charge $20 or more for tickets to increase their income by millions, they're overpaid, too.

But the goose that lays all this isn't going to fly away. Football is a popular sport, and the money is there. These people aren't about to lower their ticket prices. In the years ahead, the NFL's pot is only going to get bigger.

Thus, the only realistic question is, who's going to get the most?

--If you think that players such as Eric Dickerson of the Rams and Joe Morris of the Giants shouldn't get another dollar, what you're really saying is that more dollars should be piled up on the doorsteps of their owners, Georgia Frontiere and the Maras, Wellington and Tim.

--If you think the owners should pay until it hurts, what you're really saying is that Dickerson and Morris should make some more.

Georgia Frontiere, the Maras and the rest of the owners are in business. They're entitled to their earnings. But so are Dickerson and Morris.

One difference is that the life expectancy of a pro football player is 53 years--and it's a banged-up 53 years. They all have bad knees or bad backs, sometimes both.

Their career expectancy, on the other hand, is among the shortest on the planet. On the average, an NFL player has 4 1/2 years to prepare himself financially.

If the NFL ever grants free agency to five-year veterans, most players will not be around to take advantage of it.

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