The strike of some 1,400 National Football League players which began Tuesday set in motion contingency plans worked out well in advance by the union, the owners of the 28 teams, and the television networks. The walkout came as expected early Tuesday morning. The owners countered by reaffirming their decision to put together makeshift teams and continue play after a one-week hiatus. The TV networks are expected to broadcast the games as scheduled, at least for now.
This is the second NFL player strike in six seasons, and the fifth since 1968. The early ones were short and occurred during training camp, but the 1982 walkout wiped out seven weeks of the regular season.
That last strike was primarily over money, and since then the average player salary has risen from $90,000 to $230,000 a year.
This time the main issue is free agency, which is much more restricted in football than in other sports due to a system under which any team signing a free agent must compensate his former team with draft choices. The NFL Players Association wants an end to this system, which obviously reduces a free agent's bargaining power.
With negotiations on a new contract bogged down for months, the union set a strike deadline of Sept. 22 - after completion of the first two weeks of the season. When no agreement was reached, the strike officially began.
The players plan to set up picket lines at game sites and practice facilities, and anticipate support from other unions. Meanwhile the owners, who shut down operations during the last strike, are preparing to test the union's resolve this time. They plan to call off next weekend's games while they prepare makeshift teams, then to resume the regular league schedule on Oct. 4.
The first familiar name signed to a contract was retired former NFL quarterback John Reaves, 37, who joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Meanwhile, all teams scrambled to fill their rosters with former NFL players, refugees from the dormant United States Football League or Arena Football, players who were cut in training camp - and of course any members of their current teams who might opt to defy the union and play.
``We are not pretending that it is the same product,'' said Dallas Cowboys' president Tex Schramm. ``We will have the product available for those players who do not believe in the strike. We are not going to lock the doors. It might be some fun.''
The question of union solidarity is a big one, of course, as it is in any strike. The Players Association claimed to have overwhelming support throughout all 28 teams, but a few cracks showed right away. Defensive end Mark Gastineau of the New York Jets said he did not intend to honor the strike, and there were rumblings in the ranks of some other clubs.
As for TV, the networks were prepared to go along with regular coverage for the time being, but of course the ratings will eventually dictate their actions. Most observers felt that the first games between makeshift teams would attract substantial viewing audiences because of the curiosity factor, but that there could be a sharp decline after that - in which case the networks would probably look for alternatives.
CBS may try to switch some college games to Sunday and beef up its early pro basketball coverage.
NBC has the baseball playoffs in October, but problems thereafter since it has no college football.
ABC would probably replace Monday Night Football with entertainment shows, such as movies.
ESPN, which has the first cable rights, has plenty of alternative sports programming if needed.