NFL strike leaves all parties pondering options

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

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.

Tired of nearly seven months of fruitless negotiations and figuring they'd been offered too little, the players walked out after Monday night's Green Bay-New York Giants game.

''No games will be played until management deals with the players fairly and with dignity,'' said union president Gene Upshaw of the Raiders. The first game affected is Thursday's scheduled contest between Kansas City and Atlanta. In lieu of a national football telecast, ABC expects to show a movie, ''The Cheap Detective.''

Most of the union's 1,500 members were expected to abide by the strike vote taken two weeks into the season. Several quarterbacks, however, were known to be unsympathetic to union demands before the strike, including Joe Montana, Craig Morton, Terry Bradshaw, and Doug Williams.

Just as occurred during last year's strike-interrupted baseball season, some NFL players will hold informal practices on their own. There's even been talk about a select group coming together to play makeshift all-star games in Texas and Louisiana.

Management is contemplating its options, which include playing with strike breakers and non-union players. At least three coaches - Philadelphia's Dick Vermeil, Chicago's Mike Ditka, and Washington's Joe Gibbs - have said they wouldn't go along with such a plan.

The networks, at least, have protection clauses in their contract.This means that they can reduce their payments to the league if the quality of the NFL product falls off significantly (as measured by viewer ratings).

In scrambling to fill possibly empty air time, NBC has arranged to show Canadian Football League games for the duration of the strike; CBS, which isn't looking past this weekend yet, will show a Super Bowl re-run; and ABC will substitute movies into its prime-time slots.

Down the line, college games could conceivably be switched to Sundays to fill the void.

The union and the Management Council, the owners' negotiating arm, are presently miles apart. But how long can they afford to let their differences fester?

Both sides claim to be financially prepared for the battle. The owners, who Garvey says stand to lose between $1.2 and $1.5 million for each game not played , have taken out a $150 million line of credit to cover themselves. The union counters that it has a strike fund that will allow it members to weather a long strike.

Much more than a one- or two-game strike, however, could have dire consequences for the season. Though the baseball strike lasted seven weeks and ate up more than a third of the season, there were still enough games to constitute fairly legitimate pennant races. But in pro football, with its 16 -game season, each game is far more critical. Some observers, in fact, think the NFL might have to scrap what remains of the season if the strike lasts longer than a few weeks. Rescheduling and/or extending the season would be nothing short of a nightmarish undertaking.

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