The NFL's image has been badly damaged by the strike, and scab ball will only make it worse. The reason that the owners kept camps closed during the last players' strike, in 1982, when each club lost seven games, is that they feared subpar games would hurt the league. Some owners wanted to play with pickups back then, but commissioner Pete Rozelle convinced them that was a bad idea. Privately, he's still opposed to playing games during the strike, but he hasn't tried to stop them.
According to Cowboys president Tex Schramm, making money is only one reason that owners agreed to go ahead with scab ball. "Our attorneys have told us that we have a contractual relationship with our players, and we have to be ready to honor it," he says. "If we don't, then legally they might be able to apply to have their contracts voided. What this means is that if we don't give them a team to play for, they might be able to become free agents."
The obvious question: Why wasn't this considered when the owners closed down shop in 1982?
"I don't think we looked at it from that standpoint then," Schramm says.
Free agency wasn't even an issue in 1982, and the players stayed out 57 days. When Donlan and Upshaw resumed discussions in Philadelphia last week, it was the issue. The players have come off their original stand of unlimited free agency and proposed freedom of movement after four years in the league. Even though the average NFL career is less than four years, the owners rejected the proposal. Opening the door to free agency, they say, would destroy a system that has brought prosperity to the players and owners alike. Management offered to reduce what one team must compensate another in draft picks for signing one of its players as a free agent. The players said no, reasoning that the system was wrong, not the numbers.
That's where things stood on Friday, when Donlan and Upshaw broke off talks without scheduling another session. Donlan has maintained that the owners will never grant free agency. Nor will they consider a free-agency system with restrictions, such as one similar to the NBA's, which places a salary cap on teams, or one that limits the number of free agents a team can sign.
The players could play this season without a contract and then challenge the system on antitrust grounds. If they could hold their union together for three years, or however long such a suit would take, they might well crack the system. But by then most of today's players would be gone.
Many players see scab ball as nothing more than a union-busting tactic on the part of management. Player support weakened and finally collapsed in 1974, when the veterans were out for six weeks during the summer, and in 1982. Players now have much more to lose financially than they did in the previous walkouts, but they've never been so vocal or militant on the picket line.
At least for the first week.