Handshakes have become the chief symbol of labor-management differences in pro football.
Team owners don't like the way they were used during last week's slate of pre-season games and have threatened to fine players for breaking fraternization rules. The purpose of shaking hands at midfield was for the players to show their solidarity.
The National Football League Players Association is at loggerheads with management and may strike if a new contract cannot be negotiated.
The players want 55 percent of the league's gross revenues distributed to them in the form of salaries. The owners won't hear of it. As a result, their discussions have deteriorated into verbal sniping.
In a sense, management has only thrown gas on the fire with its current actions. Players who may not have been solidly behind the union before may now consider swinging in that direction.
Lineman Elvin Bethea of the Houston Oilers told the New York Times that he suspects union support on his team has risen from 98 to 100 percent. ''The owners made us mad. The borderline guys came back across the border.'' This may be overstating the situation, since certain players are known to disagree with the union's basic negotiating stance and aren't likely to be swayed.Still, management would be wise not spur greater union loyalty than already exists.
Defining ''excessive fraternization,'' after all, is a tricky business. The league apparently doesn't want opponents to look too chummy on the field, but shaking hands hardly seems excessive. And besides, why should players have to hide natural friendships, of which there are many across team lines in the NFL?
In fact, despite the rule, players and coaches can often been seen renewing acquaintances or wishing one another well during pre-game warmups. Nothing bad ever comes of it and such behavior can serve as a healthy influence on impressionable youngsters.
Unaware of the motivation behind the handshakes, fans at the New Orleans-Houston game cheered the action. That indicated sporting gestures, even in the rough and tumble world of pro football, are appreciated. Possibly they should become a pre-game tradition after the labor-management differences are resolved.