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HOLDING THE LINE : When NFL Management Calls Shots, the Old Guard Is an Effective Bloc

October 04, 1987|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

As they sift through their many problems these days, National Football League negotiators for both management and labor recognize two kinds of free agency.

There is the unconditional kind. Most Americans have that. They may live where they choose and if they are unhappy with their jobs, they are free to seek work elsewhere.

Then there is conditional free agency, which is sometimes awarded by sports leagues to older athletes, who can earn their freedom only by logging a specified number of years in the uniforms of the teams that signed or traded for them.

Both kinds of free-agent liberty are flatly opposed by the National Football League club owners responsible for management's position in the current dispute with the players.

They have been joined by most other owners in pro football, but not by all.

From their offices in Texas and Colorado this week, Lamar Hunt and Pat Bowlen, who own, respectively, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos, illustrated the range of NFL opinion on the subject.

Hunt, siding with management's negotiating committee, said: "Free agency wouldn't help the league in the long run."

Bowlen, who is opposed to unrestricted free agency, said that if the conditional variety comes up for realistic consideration, "I would look at it. I'm not as spooked on (freedom for veterans) as some people."

It never surprises Hunt to find at least 28 views on anything in a 28-team league.

"We have three (decision makers) on our club," he said, meaning President Jack Steadman, General Manager Jim Schaaf and owner Hunt. "And even on (free agency), we don't all feel exactly the same way."

The fact is that in their philosophic approach to football, some club owners are hard-liners, some are more moderate.

None of them will discuss it in detail, but there seems to be something of an NFL consensus on the following:

--The conspicuous hard-liners are the two most prominent members of the league's Management Council, the group that supervises the battle against the union. They are Hugh Culverhouse, president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Tex Schramm, president of the Dallas Cowboys.

--The moderates--who generally are moderate on some but not all issues--are the Rooneys of Pittsburgh, the Sullivans of New England, Art Modell of Cleveland, Al Davis of the Raiders and most of the league's newer owners: Bowlen in Denver, the Nordstroms of Seattle, the DeBartolos of San Francisco, Alex Spanos of San Diego and the so-called car dealers, Norman Braman of Philadelphia and Tom Benson of New Orleans.

"Car dealers are always deal makers," the players' counsel, Dick Berthelsen, said, expressing a wish that the league's negotiating team could be widened.

On free agency, though, at least in Modell's opinion, it wouldn't help the union if the negotiating team were widened to all 28 franchises. "If we voted today, it would be 28-0 against," he said.

On other issues, the owner of the Cleveland Browns finds it difficult to divide the NFL into left and right.

"As I have said many times, (NFL owners) are Republicans who vote socialistic," Modell said. "The 28 clubs split all (material resources) equally--TV money, assessments, even the gate. It's 60-40 for all at home, 40-60 on the road."

If on some issues the NFL does occasionally divide into Republicans and Socialists, their feet are often planted in shifting sands.

Thus in Pittsburgh, for example, Steeler President Dan Rooney is remembered as the whiz who ended the last NFL strike five years ago. But he lives in a city where some people blame the collapse of the Pittsburgh Pirates on baseball's free agency. So, this year, the Rooney family is fighting against free agency for the NFL.

Several questions remain.

In a league whose many overtime owners' meetings suggest that there are often disagreements, who, finally, sets NFL labor policy?

Who directs the league's chief negotiator, Jack Donlan? How, exactly, does NFL policy work its way down to Donlan, the man who confronts the union at the bargaining table?

The outline of pro football's chain of command is visible through the smoke of battle. It extends down from the owners through the Management Council and the council's executive committee to Donlan.


NFL policy is set by the owners when they convene in executive session, as they do several times a year. Each team is limited to representation by one person with one vote--usually the owner or his most trusted subordinate.

On labor issues, club sources say, the NFL's old guard has had the strongest voice for many years, taking the initiative to get what is always a hard-line policy approach to the players.

The younger owners support much of this policy but are often more willing to negotiate. Pro football is a strange industry because of the differences in franchise investment. Early owners got in for $500 or less. Others have paid $50 million or more.

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