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Commentary : NFLPA Is Both the Strongest and Weakest Union in America

September 27, 1987|THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — How do you cross a picket line that includes Dave Butz, Wally Kleine and Joe Jacoby -- average size 6 feet 7, 305 pounds?

The answer, please: In a bus. At dawn. Before they wake up.

The National Football League Players Assn. might be both the strongest and the weakest union in America. Its members can bench-press Delaware. But those rich old owners seem to drive a bus right through them every time there's a new contract to sign. And they're at it again.

The scene at Redskin Park Wednesday was symbolic, to say the least. When a bus of Subskins arrived at 7:15 a.m., only four Washington players were on hand and they clearly didn't know just what to do. Darryl Grant tried to pull a Joe Hill and, for his trouble, spent the morning wondering if the Redskins would press charges. "I just slapped a window and put a little crack in it," he said. "By the time the story got back to me, I'd knocked out three windows and the driver was spitting out shards of glass."

Around noon, three elephants were led past the marching Redskins. The beasts wore signs that said, "We'll work for peanuts."

"There's our new line," joked Redskins linebacker Rich Milot. A painful truth in jest. Historically, NFL players have been treated like easily replaceable creatures of burden.

What a difference a sport makes. In baseball, owners meet in secret session in unannounced cities to discuss ways to snap their 20-year losing streak at the hands of the Major League Players Association. Then they go out and get skunked again. On Monday, an arbitrator ruled the owners have been in collusion to limit free agency, and another scheme blew up in their faces.

It's tough to bollix America's only congressionally created and Supreme Court-approved monopoly. Yet, even with an antitrust exemption, baseball owners do it. Salaries now average $420,000 a man, with many millions more headed into the players' pockets when that arbitrator starts dealing out retribution.

As for NFL players, Milot said it all Wednesday: "Why don't we ever win?"

The overview of NFL labor relations is simple and consistent. The owners won the 57-day strike of 1982. NFL pay has since tripled, to $230,000 a man, but only because of salary wars with the U.S. Football League. Now, the owners want to regain some of their former control.

"In a way, this is a dignity strike," said Redskins player representative Neal Olkewicz. "They haven't negotiated. They've demanded rollbacks. Now, they're bringing in scab teams. If we don't strike, how can we say we have a union at all?"

Management says the strike is about the players' demand for free agency. And it's true that such a plan is still on the table. But the NFLPA is such a loose ship that players -- even union reps like Olkewicz -- have already tipped their hands, saying that pension and severance-pay issues are what they'll settle for and that, in all probability, they'll throw out free agency if the owners will scrap their wage scale.

After all, free agency is a rich-player issue. The NFLPA knows it's not strong enough to fight that battle. The rank-and-file won't stay out for Vinny Testaverde's right to make a few more million dollars. What the majority of players want -- the guys whose full-career income is less than half of what Lawrence Taylor makes in a season -- is an increase in pension money.

"We have a real open union. Everybody speaks his mind. That's good, most of the time," said Olkewicz. But it's also true that, during a strike, the baseball players all know the union line and never tip off their strategy.

Ideally, the players would drop their free agency talk. Even loyal union men like Milot say, "Baseball has gotten ridiculous. We don't want that. We just want some movement, a little freedom. Not much."

Ideally, the owners would cough up the $25 million-a-year increase in pension money. Why not? The USFL is gone. The NFL has no true free agency. Gradually, in such a closed market, salaries will go back down. Is it necessary to win on all issues?

Who says NFL salaries are too high, anyway? Only the owners. And their books are locked as tight as the books of their baseball counterparts were for a hundred years. Jack Kent Cooke says, without offering a decimal point of proof, that the Redskins are losing money. And the NFLPA doesn't even take him to task. The baseball union would make a project out of him and use him to educate the public, too.

As they walk their picket lines, the Redskins and other NFL teams will have plenty of time to think about the roots of their historic union weakness.

"Part of football is that you have to lose your personality for the sake of the team. We're trained not to be individualists," Olkewicz said. "That hurts us as a union. We still think of ourselves as The Redskins. We're still working out. It even drives us crazy to think a scab team's games might count against us in the standings."

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