Gene Upshaw, his union's solidarity falling apart around him, Thursday threw in the towel on the National Football League players' strike and took his case for free agency to court.
"It was unfair to the players to continue to sacrifice anymore," Upshaw said after player representatives from all 28 teams voted to end the strike that was growing less popular among the players by the day.
A total of 222 players had defected by the time the league's fifth player strike in 20 years died on its 24th day. In that time, the players gained nothing, leaving all issues on the bargaining table, and the 1,363 who stayed out the whole time--most for the sake of solidarity rather than the issues--lost one-fourth of their annual salaries.
Management also administered one final blow. When the strikers returned en masse Thursday, they were told that they couldn't play and be paid for this weekend's games because they missed the deadline for reporting at 10 a.m., PDT, Wednesday.
So by sundown, almost all the strikers were back where they started the day--on the street.
Those who chose to stay and practice apart from the non-union teams were to be paid training camp rates of $700 a week for veterans and $450 for rookies, plus $38 daily meal money.
It wasn't much to settle for, but it was all they were going to get.
"The thing was falling apart," said Ricky Hunley, player representative of the Denver Broncos. "It was like being in a war and losing your bullets. There was nothing left to fight with. The bottom was falling out of the situation."
Now the union will pursue its aims in a federal antitrust suit filed against the league in Minneapolis. The same court threw out the NFL compensation system 12 years ago, but the union surrendered it again in exchange for other considerations in 1977.
Upshaw, a former Raider offensive lineman who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year, bore the brunt of the pressure of the strike.
When it was over, he said: "The owners have refused to deal fairly with the players and have abused their monopoly powers to the extreme detriment of the players."
The suit asks that the court throw out the college draft as well as the league's system of free-agent compensation and right of first refusal for teams threatened with losing players. It also asks that the court void all player contracts signed after Sept. 16, 1987, most of which are the contracts with the replacement players.
"We tried bargaining, now we'll let the courts decide," Upshaw said.
The NFL Management Council's executive committee said, in a statement, that it will have no comment until it has read the suit.
Upshaw's statement wasn't issued until five hours after teams started reporting, amid chaos and confusion, in city after city.
"We sent the players back," Upshaw said. "They are ready to play, they want to play."
But when they reported and were told they couldn't play or be paid, most turned around and left. Three teams--the Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers--apparently got the word and didn't report at all.
No deadline has been set for next week, and nothing was said about roster limits when coaches find themselves with two squads on their hands.
"Those are all questions that have to be resolved," said Peter Ruocco, a spokesman for the Management Council.
The owners insisted that veterans reporting Thursday, after more than three weeks off the field, would be running too great a risk of injury if they played Sunday. General Manager Jim Finks of the New Orleans Saints said the owners also were wary that without a formal agreement, regulars would go on strike again as soon as replacement players were let go.
"We have to report to show them we're back," said 49er player representative Keith Fahnhorst, who accused the Management Council of wanting "to rub our noses in it" by not paying the players or allowing them to play. "If they don't pay us, there might be some legal recourse."
The last talks were held Thursday morning among Upshaw, Jack Donlan, management's chief negotiator, and Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
But those negotiations broke off over the proposed extension of the 1982 contract. The union wanted it to expire Feb. 1, but the owners wanted a June 16 expiration date, which would effectively have extended it through the 1988 season. The Feb. 1 date is the expiration date for individual player contracts; June 15 is the deadline for players to receive offers from new teams.
Marvin Miller, former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn., apparently was one of those who advised the NFL Players Assn. to send its striking players back to their teams and to file an antitrust suit against the league.
While Upshaw denied any contact with him, Miller said Thursday night that he had received telephone calls in the last few days from unidentified union officials "just asking my general view of what I thought their options were."