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NFL strike leaves all parties pondering options

By Ross AtkinSports writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 22, 1982

Pro football players, some fans figure, have replaced their pads with a chip on the shoulder.

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With scowling countenances, they have called the first in-season strike in the 63-year history of the National Football League. Not only have their talks with the owners broken off, but they seem embittered by the whole protracted contract negotiating process, possibly making a quick settlement that much harder to achieve.

The Cowboys and Steelers probably have better feelings toward one another than do some of the key principals in the present dispute.

If the players feel jilted by management, they may also feel unloved, or at least misunderstood, by what is normally an adoring public. During the pre-season, they were booed for their solidarity handshakes at midfield.And when the Atlanta Falcons fell further and further behind the Los Angeles Raiders in last Sunday's game, fans rudely chanted ''Go on strike.''

Joe Fan may have walked the picket line himself, but is alienated when high-salaried athletes consider doing so. ''People have to remember a strike in America is not unusual,'' said New York Jets lineman Marvin Powell. ''Think of the postal workers, the teachers, the airlines. A strike is as American as television.''

Pro athletes, however, are supposed to be above such things, not only because they are playing a game, but because they are making good money to boot.

NFL players are convinced, though, that the money they make is nowhere near what it should be.Two years ago a study showed that football paid an average salary of $78,000, compared to $143,000 in baseball and $186,000 in basketball.

The National Football League Players Association lays the blame for this disparity at the feet of a monster called ''corporate socialism.'' That, anyhow, is the way Ed Garvey, the union's executive director, describes pro football's unique formula for sharing the wealth.

The owners split astronomical amounts of TV money into 28 equal pieces, divvy up gate receipts on a 60-40 percentage basis (the home team taking the larger sum), and even have a system for cutting every team in on playoff monies.

The union feels that this format undermines the incentive that exists in other sports to sign free agents and raise veteran salaries.

It also explains why the players have ignored pressing for changes in free agency and have concentrated instead on formulas designed to increase the amount of money allocated to salaries. The union began the negotiations demanding a 55 percent piece of the action (i.e. the league's gross revenues), with the idea being to distribute this money on a set wage scale.

Though not averse to raising player salaries judging from their last offer, the owners have steadfastly balked at the percentage concept, claiming that it would allow the players to seize control of the game.

Each side budged some, but obviously not enough to stave off the power play that appeared more and more inevitable. The union dropped its ''percentage of gross'' demand, pushing instead for 50 percent of the league's TV revenues from 1982 to 1985 (a sizeable amount in light of the NFL's new $2 billion, five-year contract). The owners, meanwhile, laid a package of immediate salary increases on the table that was unacceptable to the players.