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ANALYSIS : BAD CALL : There's No Real Winner in NFL Strike, and Losses Are Still Being Counted

October 25, 1987|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

Lincoln said you can fool some of the people all of the time, but no one ever came up with the mathematical proof or the percentages involved until the football strike of '87, when the owners dressed a second tier of players in varsity uniforms and bade the games go on.

Forty percent of the people kept coming. The strike was crushed and the union routed.

But don't mark this one down as anyone's victory yet. We're just about to find out what damage the league suffered.

It is the owners' genius that while the players bleed all over the landscape, management manages to conceal its wounds until the shooting is over. But not forever.

The 1982 strike, which was called when the league's popularity was at an all-time high, torpedoed TV ratings, forcing Pete Rozelle to take a cut from the networks five years later and to run to ESPN to make up the difference. By the end of last season, ABC was still down 9.3%, CBS 7.9% and NBC 11.5%. Today, network officials and National Football League pooh-bahs are holding their breath, lest a similar disaffection begins to manifest itself in the overnights.

Of course, if it does, taking a page from our nation's leaders, the owners can blame the players, the players can blame the owners, and we can re-enact the entire scenario in 1992.

The true bottom line of the strike of '87 is that neither side should have let it happen. Both did. And all dangers, which were so easily predicted, were fully realized.

The union misread its membership. By striking when so many of its players apparently preferred not to, it might have destroyed itself. It places its last hopes on another antitrust suit. It has just lost the provision by which each player's $2,400 union dues are deducted from his paycheck, the very concession it gained in 1977 for surrendering the free agency won in the last antitrust action, the John Mackey case.

The owners, by taking a hard line in negotiations and making it even harder as the strike dissolved, may have cost themselves what momentum they had been able to mount since 1982.

If everyone knew they had to avoid a strike, why couldn't they?

Unlike, say, baseball, in which the union is run by labor professionals and the owners aren't locked into profits, labor relations in the NFL are still at an early, immature stage, in which neither side fundamentally accepts the other as necessary and valuable and its interests as valid.

Says Paul Martha, the former Pittsburgh Steeler, former counsel to the San Francisco 49ers, intimate of figures as disparate as Dan Rooney and Ed Garvey and the man who helped mediate the '82 strike:

"There's always the struggle, particularly in the NFL, which is more important: the people who own the game or the people who make the game? And that's never been resolved. They try to resolve that question in the collective bargaining process and that's the wrong place.

"I'm disappointed with both sides. I think the players were somewhat shortsighted and perhaps overplayed their hand.

"The contract has expired without any additional benefits being granted to the players. I mean, how much farther do the owners have to go before they can actually say they have broken the union. I'm sure you'll see, shortly, the filing of a decertification petition, and maybe an attempt to reorganize the players under a different banner.

"I think ownership, on the other hand, had won. They had a chance in the end to make a deal they could certainly live with, and they didn't.

"I mean, what are they really left with?"

You could argue that the owners made a bigger mistake when they played their first "replacement" game, tarnishing their season forever more.

Here they are, ready to start again, except the defending champion New York Giants are 0-5. In the No. 2 TV market, the Rams are 1-4.

Team statistics, as usual, are revealing. The improved Houston Oilers are No. 4 in total offense and No. 6 in total defense. The Colts' individual record for touchdown passes in a game is no longer held by John Unitas, but by Gary Hogeboom.

The owners declared irrevocably that the replacement games would stand but now there's talk of putting a motion to split the season on the agenda at their meeting this week in Kansas City. Coach John Robinson of the Rams says that his club would be happy to pay all expenses for the project.

Almost every team has players staring daggers at teammates. The strikebreakers have been declared marked men.

Aside from that, it's football as usual.

THE OWNERS: HAWKS ON PARADE

As a strike tactic, the replacement games were ingenious. They kept the TV money flowing and undermined the strikers' resolve.

As football, they were more or less OK. There were some bad ones, some good ones and lots of sloppy ones. It was not major league. Implicit in our notion of a "major league" is employing the best players who can be found, not the second-best while the best are circling the stadium with picket signs.

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