National Football League owners have insisted for more than 50 years that, regardless of ability, each of their players must sign an identically worded contract.
The owners call this the standard player's contract. And on all 28 teams today, from one player to another, only the numbers differ.
Here's what Ram owner Georgia Frontiere has agreed to do for running back Eric Dickerson, starting next year, under the terms of his 1988-89 contract extension:
--She will pay him $686,000 in 1988 unless he is injured this season.
--If Dickerson flunks the physical examination at training camp next summer, he will get only $65,000 in 1988, not $686,000.
--If it should turn out that a 1987 injury ends his career, he will get nothing in 1989, although his contract with the Rams ostensibly calls for another $686,000 that year.
--What's more, any year that Dickerson is judged to be physically fit, Ram ownership can cut him any time--after any game--and cut off his salary at the same time.
In 1989, for example, although Dickerson's contract calls for a payment of $686,000 that season, he will lose it if he's cut from the roster.
And that's a very real possibility for a beaten-up, 29-year-old running back in the NFL if his coaches have found someone faster and younger and more docile and willing to play for, say, $100,000 a year instead of $686,000.
In other words, Dickerson's widely publicized multi-year contract isn't worth much more than the paper it is printed on. It isn't, that is, unless he meets two stern requirements:
--He must stay uninjured, which isn't easy for an NFL player, particularly an aging NFL player.
--And he must keep his coaches happy. He must keep them from getting so angry or so disturbed by the things he does, on or off the field, that they decide to get rid of him.
"That's the way it is for almost all the guys who play pro football--not just Dickerson," an NFL Players Assn. spokesman said from Washington this week.
Michael Duberstein, the NFLPA's director of research, noted: "Few if any football fans understand that the big numbers they read in the papers are misleading.
"More than 99% of the (league's 1,585) players have contracts like Dickerson's. The salary numbers are often smaller--but their pay ends if they're cut or injured.
"Less than 20 NFL players have no-cut contracts. That's less than 1%. And most of the no-cuts were negotiated in the years when there was competition (from the United States Football League)."
During the NFL's four-week strike-lockout this fall, the players sought to bargain with the owners for a more reasonable contract structure. They found that the owners wouldn't discuss it.
In America today, to most business people, a $600,000 contract is a $600,000 contract.
In baseball and basketball, for example, the huge player salaries listed in the newspapers are usually what they appear to be.
"Salaries are commonly guaranteed in both baseball and the National Basketball Assn.," Boston agent Bob Woolf said.
"I'll give you three examples of (NBA deals) I just negotiated.
"Armon Gilliam signed a $5-million contract for five years--with every penny guaranteed. So is every penny of Bernard King's contract. He signed for $2 million for two years.
Gilliam plays with the Phoenix Suns and King, formerly of the New York Knicks, has signed an offer sheet with the Washington Bullets. The Knicks may match the Bullets' offer if they want to get King back, but his money is guaranteed in any event.
And both, unlike Dickerson, will be paid in full if they get hurt or cut.
"They have broad-range injury clauses," Woolf said. "What that means is that the teams have guaranteed these contracts regardless of whether they're injured on or off the basketball floor.
"If their NBA career ends walking across the street someday, their teams will honor their contracts 100%."
A football player asking an NFL owner for such a contract would probably be benched on grounds of insanity.
Still, in corporate America, basketball continues to be perceived as a sound investment. Wealthy sportsmen stand in line to get NBA franchises--just as they do NFL franchises. In the NBA this year, even expansion clubs are priced at $32 million and up.
Baseball also remains in business with guaranteed contracts. Asked for an East Coast example, Woolf said:
"(Boston Red Sox pitcher) Bob Stanley will get $1 million a year for the next two years, regardless of whether he pitches well."
And recently, Stanley hasn't pitched all that well.
Woolf, one of the nation's most respected sports agents, is of the opinion that momentum is all that is keeping the NFL's harsh player relations in place.
"The NFL's answer is always that it has always done things this way," Woolf said, adding that if baseball and the NBA could give guaranteed contracts, the NFL could.
Even the choicest and most famous of the NFL's players are on day-to-day contracts.
"If Joe Montana gets hurt again this year and can't play out his contract, he'll get $65,000 next year, Woolf said.