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Pro Football : NFL Owners Weren't Above Using Rumors to Break Up Player Strike

October 21, 1987|Bob Oates

In National Football League history, it will be remembered as the great strike-lockout of 1987.

It was a strike for more than two weeks, when National Football League games were played by non-union teams.

Then it became a lockout during a third weekend of games when the NFL's owners again fielded makeshift teams after refusing to reinstate their union players.

It was a sorry several weeks, all around, and even the behavior of some reporters raises some questions.

On the second Sunday of the strike, Will McDonough, a Boston Globe sportswriter who is also employed by CBS Sports, went on the air with a prediction that Raider regulars would return to practice en masse a day later.

McDonough's statement was made at a time when the policy of the NFL's 28 owners was to break the strike with two tactics:

--Refusal to bargain with the union on any serious issue, thereby provoking the players to lose hope that they would get the quick settlement they wanted.

--Pressuring as many veterans as possible, through various means, to cross the union's picket lines, thereby encouraging other players to follow suit.

One of the means they used was the planting of rumors.

The NFL always has spread rumors profitably, and this time, from Day 1, there were stories that this player or another would cross the picket line today or tomorrow. Most proved untrue.

The grandest of all of this year's rumors was the prediction--made simultaneously on the strike's second weekend by different speakers in different parts of the country--that this team or that would return en masse "tomorrow."

It never happened. The Raiders, for example, weren't close to returning en masse. But the rumors clearly had an effect on some players.

McDonough's role can be examined in the context of all that. What background information is available?

Here's some of it:

--The goal of Raider owner Al Davis, from the start, was to get his strikers back intact as soon as he could. When Howie Long and one or two other players wanted to join the non-union team, Davis sent them away.

--Davis reasoned that if Long, a respected All-Pro, were with the strikers, instead of against them, he and other players opposed to the strike could persuade the rest of the Raiders to return, as Davis said, en masse.

--That prompted McDonough's prediction.

--McDonough has for many years used Davis as a source. More than once, Western writers have been with Davis here during their phone conversations.

--McDonough specializes in stories that require high-level sources.

--McDonough generally takes strong anti-player, pro-owner positions, as he did throughout this strike, positions that Davis and other owners like to hear.

--The NFL will take advantage of sportswriters and sportscasters who are sympathetic with their views. When the owners want their position or a key rumor set before the public, various owners and others make contact with those people.

It's an efficient system. It almost always works.

Anyone relying on an NFL press release for essential information this month would have had no knowledge of what was going on. The league's public relations policy has been to pretend that there was no strike.

The official Oct. 13 release was typical. The Chicago Bears were simply identified as the league's only undefeated team, and the Raider-San Diego non-union game was simply identified as a battle for first place in the division.

There was no indication that most of the game's finest players were out.

The standings were complete--except for one major deletion. There was no indication that half the games had been played by union teams, half by non-union.

In an otherwise turbulent month for the NFL, it was business as usual in the public relations office.

Social scientists researching the strike-lockout will identify one curious thing about it--the fact that non-union games were called replacement games on all networks and by many newspapers.

How could such a euphemism have been adopted so soon and used so often?

Early on, the owners passed the word to their TV friends and others that replacement was the word they wanted used.

Years ago, the owners had passed the word that their August games were to be called preseason games instead of what they were and are--exhibition games--and like well-mannered children, network broadcasters and many sportswriters fell into line.

As they did again this fall.

Unanimously, the broadcasters went with the owners instead of the players--Brent Musburger, Dick Enberg, Al Michaels, all of them.

So did the national news services, sometimes, although they also occasionally referred to strikeball. And so did many newspapers.

The better papers, of course, used all the synonyms, depending on the story line. But they never did join the networks in using replacement exclusively. Nor did they use the word scab , the derogatory term preferred by the union for strikebreakers who take union members' jobs, except in quotes or opinion pieces .

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