Merlin Olsen believes that if the National Football League owners have indeed killed the players' union, they have left themselves a larger problem than where to send the flowers.
Olsen, who was the Rams' player representative in the early 1970s, suggested, "The owners have built a trap for themselves."
Olsen, a former defensive tackle who retired after the 1976 season and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in '82, related his scenario by phone from the Central California coast, where he was filming a television show.
His view is that a combination of the owners' arrogance and the players' disenchantment with their own union could lead to the last thing the owners want: free agency.
Without a union, Olsen reasoned, players could easily win their own freedom in court, as they did previously, before their former executive director, Ed Garvey, bargained it away in negotiations in 1977.
In exchange, Garvey got the owners to institute the dues checkoff system, which guaranteed the union dues from members through payroll deductions.
The owners said at the end of the strike, however, that they will no longer collect dues for the union.
"Now, the players' association is really on shaky ground," Olsen said. "In essence, they probably took about half of the operating revenue right out of the pocket of the union.
"Having had to collect those checks myself, I can guess that when guys who have just sacrificed 60 or 80 thousand (dollars) are hit up for this (annual dues of) $2,400, a lot of 'em are just going to say, 'Take a hike.'
"The only appeal is to say to that player, 'Look what we've done for you or what we're going to do for you.'
"But now you're going to have guys that are so angry at what they consider to be the failure of the NFLPA that there's no way they'll reach for the checkbook. In most cases you're going to get very cold stares."
Furthermore, Olsen said, there is little advantage now for a player to join the union.
"There's no way to deny an individual the benefits of that collective bargaining agreement if he does not pay his dues," he said.
Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFLPA, said the collection of dues was scheduled to start next week. He anticipated no problems.
"The players responsible for collecting the dues are guys the players elected to represent them," Allen said by phone from Miami Beach, where he was attending the AFL-CIO convention.
Besides, Allen said, dues collection was voluntary, as Olsen described it, until 1977, and "We survived that before." After '77, it was still voluntary for teams in Texas, Georgia, Florida and Colorado, where laws don't allow for a checkoff system.
"And we've done very well in those places," Allen said.
But the mood of the rank and file may be different now.
"One of the things you learn as an athlete is that you never want to embarrass an opponent or beat an opponent too badly that you're going to have to come back and face later on," Olsen said.
"The owners may have won this thing too big because they really crushed the union--and not only crushed them in terms of defeat but then gave then one more good kick when they were down and wouldn't allow them to play the next game. I don't think the players will forget that.
"I also see a very strong movement from the rank and file to oust (Executive Director Gene) Upshaw and the leadership of the union. They're angry at the way this thing was handled."
Allen said: "We serve at the pleasure of the player reps. The only way the players will lose this struggle is to give up on the idea of the union itself.
"We've been through some difficult times before. There may be some anger and frustration but the problem is with the ownership--people like Tex Schramm, Joe Robbie and Hugh Culverhouse. The hard-liners among the owners are the reason we're having problems."
Management Council spokesman John Jones said from New York, "It is convenient to say it is something that management did to destroy the union, which I don't believe, because the union leadership was doing such a good job on their own.
"(Management) recessed negotiations Oct. 11. At that time on the table were not only offers that would have continued dues check-off as part of the next agreement (but also) the largest single pension offer in the history of the union."
Olsen said even if the union doesn't collapse financially, it could lose its legal standing if the membership falls below 50% representation.
"All the players that came in as part of the replacement teams were told that they had to sign a letter which basically was a resignation from the NFLPA," Olsen said. "That's about 10%" (Actually, 261 of the 1,585 defected, or 16.5%.)
"What happens if another 40% resign from the NFLPA?" Olsen asked. "At that point the NFLPA ceases to exist as a bargaining unit for the NFL players. Any contract signed by the NFLPA is invalid. That invalidates the draft (and) the free agency (compensation) system."