The NFL and its players have combined to present one of the strangest days in league history; a Sunday that will offer some laughs yet might include violence and possibly help determine the future of sports labor struggles.
Striking NFL players call the day "Scab Sunday," and the owners say it is a regular-season weekend with "replacement teams." Nobody seems sure exactly how it will turn out.
Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association, claims the battle is more than a skirmish between football players and owners over free agency. Upshaw has accused management of racism against him and broadened the issue to include all organized labor.
The striking players have support from the AFL-CIO and Upshaw said the union will take measures to disrupt non-union games.
"Guys from organized labor are with us," Upshaw said. "This is a fight for the working man in this country. If they can break a football player making $200,000 a year, what chance does the little man have?"
Upshaw said his stand has led the owners to see him as a black militant who will resort to violence. He denies the players will use violence.
If the games are as important to unions as Upshaw says, then the nation's labor-management relationship will be decided by how many passes are dropped, kicks are muffed and penalties are committed on a day when Walter Mitty plays pro football.
"We have a different cast of characters," Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm said. "I think we're going to have good crowds and good games. It's wrong to expect enormous crowds, but I think people will like what they see."
The NFL is the first professional sports league to attempt to play its regular schedule during a players' strike. With an NBA strike looming and major league baseball's players' union due for a new collective bargaining agreement next year, players and owners from those sports should watch closely.
The 28 NFL teams have prepared for today's games since the NFL Players Association went on strike Sept. 22. They have rounded up the best available players, many of whom crossed picket lines on their way to the practice field.
The scripts should be as different as the characters, as coaches weigh if anything more tricky than an off-tackle constitutes a high risk offense.
"Obvsiously you can't use the type of broad offense we would have if our professionals were here," Dallas Coach Tom Landry said.
Perhaphs San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh summed it up best, after scanning the roster of the 49ers' Monday night opponents -- the New York Giants, who signed 12 players from a semi-pro team.
"We are not playing the New York Giants," Walsh said, "we are playing the Connecticut Giants."
Walsh should be advised the Connecticut Giants are champions -- of the Continental Interstate Football League.
The NFL has emphasized that 13 Sunday games and the Monday night contest count in what has become a 15-week season (last week's games, missed because of the strike, have been canceled). Team and player statistics go into the record book, although individual streaks are not jeopardized by the strike.
Owners are hoping to break the strike by luring players off the picket lines and back on the field. Some players have already defied Upshaw's strike, including running back Tony Dorsett, quarterback Danny White and defensive tackle Randy White of the Cowboys, center Mike Webster and running back Earnest Jackson of the Steelers, wide receiver Roy Green, defensive end Curtis Greer and safety Leonard Smith of the Cardinals, defensive end Mark Gastineau of the Jets and quarterbacks Marc Wilson of the Raiders and Gary Hogeboom of the Colts.
"When they make that decision, they not only take the number off their back -- they take their name off and put scab up there," Upshaw said. "And it will stay there for the rest of their life.
"A few players will not weaken our bargaining position. When the strike began, everybody wrote about the four players who crosse but instead of the 1,600 who didn't. I guess solidarity doesn't make headlines, dissension does."
On Sunday, it will be Dallas at the New York Jets, Pittsburgh at Atlanta, Chicago at Philadelphia, Indianapolis at Buffalo, Green Bay at Minnesota, Cleveland at New England, Miami at Seattle, San Diego at Cincinnati, Houston at Denver, Tampa Bay at Detroit, St. Louis at Washington, the Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans and Kansas City at the Los Angeles Raiders.
Among the replacement teams, the 49ers, Cowboys, Raiders and Packers are considered the best. The 49ers have 15 players with NFL experience, although no striking San Francisco players have crossed.
And how good are the 49ers?
"I think we might be a playoff team in the USFL," said Jerry Walker, San Francisco's director of public relations.