Labor-management strife clouds pro football horizon

The National Football League has enjoyed a highly entertaining season, culminated by Sunday's Super Bowl here between Cincinnati and San Francisco. Looking to the immediate future, however, is not such an appealing prospect.

Both labor and management are preparing to dig in the way two teams normally do near the goal line. A new labor agreement must be hammered out before the 1982 season, yet the players and team owners are currently miles apart and moving no closer.

The players feel the pact that expires in July has allowed the owners to sidestep free agency, the system that has so enhanced player mobility and salaries in baseball.

At its annual Super Bowl press conference, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) essentially said it wouldn't waste its time trying to restructure free agency, since it has been such a failure. Instead, the union is preparing to fight bor one thing: a bigger slice of the pie.

The players want it in writing that they receive 55 percent of the league's gross revenues, a proposal management strongly opposes. They presently get about 30 percent according to the union, while the NFL puts the figure at 44 percent.

The two groups seldom agree on any financial figures, and the opportunity to sound out both sides doesn't really clear up the confusion, as reporters learned at Super Bowl XVI. (The NFLPA, for example, claims average pre-tax operating profit per team in 1980 was $5 million. The NFL says it was $1.4 million).

Negotiations on the new contract begin Feb. 16 in Miami, and Ed Garvey, the NFLPA's executive director, says the players would like to reach an agreement by May ''to avoid the pitfalls that baseball went through last year,'' when a strike interrupted the game in midseason. ''If we don't have a new contract by then,'' he added, ''we think the chance of a strike will be significantly increased.''

Through a series of meetings this past season and a league-wide questionnaire , the NFLPA believes at least 90 percent of its membership is prepared to walk the picket lines if it comes to that. ''We have the right issue, and the players support it,'' says union president Gene Upshaw, a veteran lineman of the Oakland Raiders.

The show of solidarity doesn't impress Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL Management Council, the clubowners' labor relations arm. From his experience in other labor-management tussles, Donlan says, ''Any self-respecting union can get 99 percent of its members to support a strike months before negotiating starts.''

The union, which organized a brief walkout in 1974 during the pre-season, is encouraged by the example baseball players set in sticking together last summer, by the support it has nurtured among other labor groups through membership in the AFL-CIO, an by access to NFL financial figures made public in recent congressional testimony and court cases.

Garvey says the ''league is so healthy it's almost embarrassing,'' but the 28 NFL owners say they make a lot less than the players believe. Whatever the case, the players insist they're not getting their fair share.

That's why they're demanding 55 percent of gross revenue.

The owners, however, consider the percentage idea an anathema that would make the players business partners.

''When you talk about a percentage of gross, any percentage, you're talking about control of the game,'' Donlan says. Once the players had their foot in the door, he believes, they would want a say in revenue matters, such as ticket prices, TV contracts, and the like.

To a large degree, the players' demand has grown out of mounting frustration. They look at other pro sports and see the players making considerably more money. The culprit, they feel, is the way NFL clubs share revenue, thereby stifling real competition between teams.

''Unlike baseball,'' says Garvey, ''the NFL has this socialistic system where they share everything equally. They have eliminated any reward for a club's doing well.''

NFL franchises split gate receipts on a 60-40 basis and divide up millions of dollars in broadcasting rights equally. The belief, then, is that losing clubs can live off the fat of the land, so to speak, and not worry about signing expensive free agents who could make them more competitive.

Pro football's free agent market has indeed been terribly quiet, yet this may be the fault of the system, not the NFL's revenue-sharing ideology. Any team that signs a free agent for $200,000 or more per year must compensate his former club with two first round draft choices. That's a stiff price in a league where a basic rule of thumb is: ''Build through the draft.''

If there's light at the end of the negotiating tunnel, it may be in drawing up more reasonable ''compensation'' rules.

Even withouit a workable free agent system, Donlan feels that salaries have kept up with inflation and remained fair. The average NFL salary, in fact, has nearly doubled to $80,000 during the present five-year agreement. To compare this with higher figures in baseball, he says, ignores an important point: a football owner has to pay twice as many players as his baseball counterpart.

The players argue vociferously, however, that they are the game, and that the owners, likened to promoters, are keeping an unduly large percentage of the proceeds.

If the NFLPA ever does succeed in winning what it wants, the next step would be a wage scale. Players would get a basic salary that would increase with years of experience. There would also be incentive bonuses for starting, playing time, making All-Star teams, and appearing in playoff games. Additional bonuses by position would be a possibility, an obvious attempt to appease backs and receivers, who traditionally make more than linemen. Based on a hypothetical formula, Garvey says an all-pro Super Bowl veteran could have earned between $700,000 and $900,000 this past season.

For the moment, though, top priority goes to resolving the current impasse. The owners have reportedly purchased a $150 million line of credit, perhaps in anticipation of a strike. The players, meanwhile, are prepared to play ''hardball'' at the bargaining table.

At this rate, the NFL's intra-squad scrimmage just might make more headlines than Super Bowl XVI before it's all over.

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