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Fans Don't Go for Fake, Thousands Stay Away

October 05, 1987|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

More than a thousand non-union players had fun acting out their football fantasies in National Football League games Sunday, but the fans weren't buying it.

Attendance for the first round of strike games averaged only 16,987 and was 26.2% of stadium capacity. It ranged from 4,074 at Philadelphia, where 1,500 pickets blocked entrances to Veterans Stadium, to a league high of 38,494 in Mile High Stadium at Denver, which was about half of what the Broncos needed for their 131st consecutive sellout.

Worse, the defending AFC champions were trounced by the Houston Oilers, 40-10.

Management, predictably, saw a silver lining, while the union called it a sham.

"It's better than being shut down," said Tex Schramm, president of the Dallas Cowboys and a member of the NFL Management Council's executive committee.

Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Assn., said: "After what I saw on TV today, I felt bad my players are on strike. They're being cheated and the fans are being cheated."

But signs indicate that it will be only a one-week phenomenon and the real players might be back performing next weekend.

Unlike the 1982 players strike, this time, after a one-week interruption, the NFL owners decided to continue playing valid games with second-rate squads. While it failed to fool anybody, the scheme may have accomplished its primary purpose: to put so much economic pressure on the striking players that they would break their own strike.

Easy money: all they had to do was cross a picket line to collect it, and about 90 of the 1,585 union members did so, although only about 60 actually played Sunday.

But with many more players apparently primed to return to work this week, and reports circulating that the Raiders, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers and other teams will defect en masse, the NFLPA Sunday scheduled a meeting of its 28 player representatives in Chicago tonight.

Raider player representative Sean Jones denied that his team is going in.

The union said Sunday it is considering asking Jesse Jackson to mediate the dispute.

It's strongly suspected that the thrust of tonight's meeting will be to tell Upshaw to abandon the free agency issue, where the owners won't budge.

But Doug Allen, the union's executive director, said the meeting is to "determine what our bargaining position will be. There is no plan to throw in the towel, no plan to go back to work without a contract."

Allen denied the reports about imminent mass defections. He also said the union isn't backing off its demand for unrestricted free agency for players with more than four years' experience.

However, earlier Sunday, defensive end Charles Mann of the Redskins said, "We're giving it (free agency) up. We're putting the ball back in the owners' court and see if they are willing to make a move."

Allen said Mann's comment was "totally incorrect."

Asked if the owners are ready to make concessions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse, chairman of the Management Council's executive committee, said, "If Gene (Upshaw) needs something for dignity, we'll give it to him. But not free agency."

Picketers in Philadelphia forced the fans to enter through a corridor of mounted police. Three dozen trucks, tractor-trailer rigs and vans stopped bumper-to-bumper on the street next to the stadium 45 minutes before game time, paralyzing traffic.

One car was attacked by picketers and had its windshield smashed and radio antenna ripped off.

Philadelphia Eagles' player representative John Spagnola tried to keep things under control and shouted at all those around him, "Our purpose here is to demonstrate peacefully."

Non-football union members shouted back at Spagnola, "Don't show weakness."

Before the Raiders played Kansas City at the Coliseum, the sparse crowd of 10,000 fans was greeted not only by striking players, but also by outspoken members of almost 20 local unions, who joined the NFL Players Assn. in denouncing the owners' of strikebreakers and fill-ins.

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley urged the players to continue to "hold that line.

"I'm in support of the players. The fans are hungry to get top quality players on the football field. As long as we're (management and players) talking, both sides will benefit. If there's a freeze-out, no one stands to gain," Bradley told a cheering crowd of about 2,500.

At Orchard Park, N.Y., Robert Starks, a member of the United Steelworkers, ignored a picket line of striking players and went inside Rich Stadium to watch the Buffalo Bills' substitute team play the Indianapolis Colts.

"I don't recognize this players' union as a union," Starks said. "These football players are independent contractors. They're trying to use me by using the term 'union,' and I refuse to be used."

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