In recent telephone conversations with sports editors across the United States, one thing emerged clearly.
Pro football fans who haven't yet figured out what to do with their Sundays because of the National Football League player strike ought to move to Great Falls, Mont.
Great Falls, you'll see if you examine a national map, is about as far from an NFL city in the lower 48 as you can get. But according to sports editor George Geise of the Great Falls Tribune, folks there are as enthusiastic about pro football as folks anywhere else.
"The football hangouts here are P.J.'s Lounge and the Merry-Go-Round, and they're packed on Monday nights," he said.
"But the difference is, there are other things to do here on Sundays. We've got incredible trout fishing right now on the Missouri River about 20 miles south of town. The partridge and pheasant seasons started two weeks ago, and duck season starts this weekend."
Drifting down the Missouri River this week might sound pretty good to harried sports editors in New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles, instead of journeying into uncharted picket lines, editing labor relations stories and pondering the ethics of reporters--at least, those who belong to unions--crossing NFL picket lines.
"This is one of the most bizarre weekends in NFL history coming up," said David Tucker, sports editor of United Press International in New York. "Newspapers, NFL players and owners--we're all going into unknown waters."
Should a newspaper reporter who belongs to a union cross the NFL Players Assn. picket line to cover a non-union game?
Said Vic Ziegel, executive sports editor of the New York Daily News: "We're a guild (union) paper, and my senior football writer, Bryon Burwell, told me: ' . . . so I just want you to know I will be covering the games, but under protest,' but he smiled when he said it.
"We had a meeting on the subject, and our football writers agreed we're all covering the news and, as such, they didn't feel they had a problem."
At the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, also a guild paper, pro football writers sounded out the striking players, according to sports editor Rick Arthur.
"Our beat writers, Jack Disney (who covers the Raiders) and John Czarnecki (Rams), are members of the Graphic Communications Union, and they informally sounded out the striking players about how they felt about them crossing picket lines," Arthur said.
"The feedback was that the players understood that they had to cover the games. A related concern was whether or not beat writers would damage their relationships with any players by crossing the lines."
Are the NFL's non-union games, beginning this weekend, really going to be games? You bet your sweet Sony they are, according to the New York Daily News' Ziegel.
"Hey, if these games count in the standings (and they do) . . . oh brother, we're there," he said. "The crowds may be terrible and the games may be awful, but the games count. We cover harness racing at Roosevelt Raceway every night, and they get 2,800 people. And God knows how much space we give to exhibition hockey games."
Gene Quinn, sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, put it this way: "We'll try to make the best chicken-salad sandwich we can, even though we know we're not dealing with USDA prime chicken."
All sports editors are asking themselves the same question about the non-union games: Does anyone care?
"It's a tough call," said Dave Smith, executive sports editor of the Dallas Morning News. "My problem is gauging the interest level on these games. People here may not be willing to pay the $23 the Cowboys are charging, but they may follow them very closely on TV. I want to see the TV numbers (ratings) after this weekend."
Most sports editors reported that their mail runs heavily in support of the owners.
"On Monday alone, I had 21 pieces of mail on the subject and two sided with the players," said the Los Angeles Times' Bill Dwyre.
Said Smith: "In seven years in Dallas, I've gotten more mail on this subject than any other. I'm talking about hundreds of letters, and about 90% of them side with the owners."
George Solomon, assistant managing editor for sports at the Washington Post, said, however, that his mail was split, half favoring the players, half the owners.
All were asked if in the event of a long strike, the NFL would recede gradually to the back of their sports sections.
"I can see it getting to that point," said the L.A. Times' Dwyre. "If the strike goes on for a long time, I can see two- and three-paragraph stories (on negotiations) at the back of the section. I don't think sports page readers are going to want to read a lot of labor-relations stories."
Dwyre also said that a long strike would free some space in his section for other sports, other features.